What most Americans don’t know about the Arkansas primary and should is that the state has had a “home candidate” or a connection to a candidate competing in the presidential nomination contest for the last three decades with the exceptions of the 2000 and 2012 elections. Arkansas natives who were on various primary ballots include Bill Clinton, a former Democratic governor who was his party’s nominee in 1992 and 1996; Army General Wesley Clark, who ran unsuccessfully in 2004 for the Democratic nomination; and the former first lady of the state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who competed unsuccessfully in the 2008 Democratic primary but then came back to win the party’s nomination in 2016. Conservative commentator Mike Huckabee, a former governor of the state competed unsuccessfully in the 2008 Republican nomination contest. While Tennessean Al Gore was never a resident of the state, his ties to the Clinton presidency made him a surrogate “favorite son” in the 2000 contest.
In a state where politics has often been driven more by personal ties and face-to-face campaign appeals, rather than ideology and television advertising, these local connections should have stoked many instances of primary fever. Furthermore, when combined with an open primary process, this recent history of candidates with ties to the state should have produced a surge of voter participation. At 30 percent in the 2016 presidential primaries for example, the state had a slightly higher turnout than the national average. Voter turnout for primary contests in the state is inconsistent from contest to contest.
Until 2016, Arkansas held their nomination election later in the primary calendar, typically in May. This shaped voters’ perceptions that the state had little influence over the process as the contest in Arkansas was held long after Super Tuesday when most contests have winnowed their candidate field or outright have a nominee designate. This has had long-lasting consequences on priming the primary electorate to vote. Still, despite the state moving up their election to early March in 2016, the rate of voter turnout in the primary did not increase significantly from previous contests.
Despite these ties to high-profile candidates, voter turnout in the state’s general elections are also comparatively low. Arkansas ranks 48 out of 50 for voter turnout in the presidential election. Nationally, education is one of the best predictors of voter turnout, so it is no surprise that Arkansas has lower voter turnout compared to the other states. Arkansas’ ranking on voter turnout also correlates with the state’s ranking in educational outcomes and collegiate attainment.
A lack of electoral competitiveness, regardless of whether at the primary or general election stage, is also another explanation for low levels of voter enthusiasm. The Democratic Party dominated at both the presidential and statewide levels until the 1960s, and local and state Republican candidates still faced an uphill struggle in the state until 2010. Yet, uncontested general elections were an uncommon sight during the era of Democratic Party rule in the state, except for when Senator Mark Pryor won reelection in 2008 without a Republican opponent. However, the state rapidly realigned at these levels, and by 2014 the strength of the Republican Party in this now deeply red state left many congressional and state legislative seats going uncontested. Tom Cotton swept Pryor out of office in 2014, the contest following Pryor’s uncontested first re-election, by more than 17 points. In four years, the state went from Democrats controlling all statewide office, both U.S. Senate seats and three-quarters of the U.S. house delegation in 2010 to a GOP monopoly by 2014.
Although the state has low voter turnout and a lack of electoral competitiveness, this has not stopped candidates from visiting the state of Arkansas to collect campaign contributions from the big donors that reside there. These wealthy influencers who are able to provide the maximum donation legally allowed and provide unlimited funds to the super PACs that provide the crucial soft support needed to compete. Candidates of all stripes typically drop in to appear at big ticket donor events and fancy fundraising dinners with corporate executives from the six Fortune 500 companies in the state, such as Walmart, Tyson Foods, and Murphy Oil. These companies have brought in an influx of educated professionals to the state and with them, to demographic changes. Although voter turnout is inconsistent and party competitiveness is relatively weak in recent cycles the demographic changes in the state may correlate with increasing engagement in the primary. So, what most Americans don’t know about the Arkansas primary and should is that the story is still unfolding in this state and to not count it out of the process yet.