Mitchel-Markley cost Starr 3 to 1

Libertarians make an impactIn Oregon’s Senate District 15 this year, incumbent  Republican Senator Bruce Starr  lost to Democrat Chuck Riley by 287 votes. It was a rematch of 2010 which Starr handily won by 4.5%  or 1,849 votes.

What’s changed in the past four years?

The District is not more blue. In the last four years  Democratic voters have dropped from 25,601 to 22,629. Republican voters also decreased by about the same amount.  The difference between the D’s and R’s  has changed by a mere 138 voters in four years. That’s out of 64,000. There are lot more i/Independent voters (NAV and IPO members went from 26% to 34% of total electorate). But The District has remained a Democratic District by about 7.5%. And, according to the professional political operatives, registrations don’t matter anyway. Independents aren’t independents, they’re just less reliable leaners for Democrats or Republicans.

Did Riley have some popular achievement in the past 4 years? No. In fact he lost a race for PCC Board of Directors, though he has remained active in Democratic and progressive politics.

Did Starr have a scandal? No, in fact, he’s moved to the center on some economic issues in order to more closely identify with a relatively moderate and independent district.

Did the Democrats flood the election with money. Yes. And so did Starr. It was a tossup in dollars spent. And the marginal effectiveness of the difference spent by the two sides? insignificant.

So what did change? 2010 was a head to head matchup between Riley and Starr. In 2014 there was a solid Libertarian candidate Caitlin Mitchel-Markley, who polled 9.1% of the vote – 3,593 votes.

On Oregon Catalyst a recent post assumed Mitchel-Markley’s presence on the ballot cost Starr the election.  Kyle Markley (Ms. Mitchel-Markley’s spouse and a candidate for HD-30) and Mitchel-Markley both have maintained that it’s just as likely that she drew just as many voters from Riley as she did from Starr. They point to the Democratic voter edge and solid Democratic victories in HD-29 and HD-30 – which together make up SD-15, as evidence that more people were inclined to vote Democrat than Republican in SD-15, and therefore she must have taken more votes from Riley than from Starr.

It was an interesting point, however ignored the voting history in SD-15 from 2010 to 2014. The only way to accurately determine the effect of Mitchel-Markley’s election on the SD-15 race is to compare the 2010 and 2014 conditions and outcomes and to account for variables.  A fair analysis would lead one to conclude that Mitchel-Markley drew three times as many votes from Starr as she did from Riley.

Maybe more importantly, since there are so many variables in most elections, and since SD-15 held so many of these variables constant from 2010 to 2014, analyzing SD-15  provides an excellent case study if you want to determine how much a Libertarian candidate harms or helps a Republican candidate in Oregon.

After looking at the data, a fair conclusion is that in Washington County at least, with all other things being relatively equal, a Libertarian candidate will draw three times as many votes from the Republican as she will from the Democrat.

Let’s look at the data for SD-15:


Registered Voters                                           2010                                       2014

Democrat                                                            25,061                                   22,629

Republican                                                         20,312                                   18,018


Votes                                                                  2010                                       2014

Riley                                                                    19,533                                   18,156

Starr                                                                    21,382                                   17,869

Mitchel-Markley                                                     ——-                                    3,593


% of vote                                                             2010                                       2014

Riley                                                                     47.7%                                    45.8%

Starr                                                                    52.2%                                    45.1%

Mitchel-Markley                                                    ——-                                    9.1%


In 2010 Starr’s total raw vote equaled 105% of total Republican Voters. Since the major party turnout was about 75% he clearly got most of the Republican Registered voters, and picked up a large number of i/Independent and probably some Democratic voters as well.  Riley’s raw vote total was only equal to 78% of the Democratic registration total. So he didn’t get as much support from his party and/or  didn’t attract as high of a percentage of Democratic leaning i/Independents or crossovers as Starr.

In 2014 Starr’s raw vote total went down to 99% of the total GOP registered voters while Riley’s raw total went up slightly to 80% of Democratic registrants. So while Riley slightly outperformed his 2010 hold on Democrats and Democratic leaners, Starr significantly underperformed  his hold on Republicans and GOP leaning i/Independents. If Riley and Starr had maintained their same percentage hold on their party members plus leaners – which given the fact that there was little change in the electorate or the candidates – and there was no Libertarian candidate the election would have been  a virtual repeat of 2010.

Comparing the percentage of vote may be a bit easier and shows how dynamic Starr’s votes was and how static Riley’s support was from 2010 to 2014.   Riley’s vote share fell slightly from 47.7% of total vote to 45.8%, a drop of 1.9%.  But Starr fell more dramatically, from 52.2% down to 45.1%. A 7.1% drop. For every one percentage drop in Riley’s total, Starr dropped more than three percent.

There are very few variables that differed from 2010 to 2014 in this race. You can’t argue that there was a major Republican to Democratic registration shift. You can’t argue that there was a scandal, or a significant achievement by one of these candidates.  The SD-15 races of 2010 and 2014 had just one significant difference. A good Libertarian candidate.

If in a three way race a Libertarian candidate costs the Republican candidate three times as many votes as the Democrat it means that a Democratic candidate who is behind by 4-5% in a head to head matchup will be within striking distance with a Libertarian on the ballot.

Currently there seem to be no comparable third party candidates who have the same effect on the Democrats. A good reason for the Oregon GOP to be for election reform like IRV or ranked choice or approval voting and for the Democrats to be against it.


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