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Analysis: Nebraska primary voter turnout suggests '22 gov. race has echoes to '14 contest

Jim Pillen addresses his supporters Tuesday night in Lincoln after winning the Republican primary race for Governor
Will Bauer
Nebraska Public Media News
Jim Pillen addresses his supporters Tuesday night in Lincoln after winning the Republican primary race for Governor

Now that the primary election is in the rear view mirror, we can answer a question that Nebraska Public Media News asked a few weeks ago: How many votes does it take to win the governor’s seat? To dive deeper into the results, Nebraska Public Media News' Morning Edition Host Jackie Ourada spoke with Daniel Wheaton. This conversation has been edited for clarity.

Jackie Ourada: What did the breakdown of the Republican Gubernatorial primary look like?

Daniel Wheaton: In many ways, the 2022 Republican primary was a lot like the race back in 2014. In both of these races, we had several candidates that were close in the polls, meaning that there was more suspense as the results came in. In the end, NU Regent Jim Pillen came through with roughly 90,000 votes. He had an edge of nearly 10,000 votes over the second place candidate, Charles Herbster.

With current Gov. Pete Ricketts term-limited, Nebraska Republicans will decide who will represent their party in early May. All signs point to a very tight race.

Ourada: Just to refresh, what was the 2014 race like?

Wheaton: That was a non-incumbent election. Dave Heineman had been termed out so he couldn’t run. It was essentially a four-person race, but in the end Pete Ricketts won by a very small margin, just about 2,000 votes. Both of these races had slightly higher voter turnout as well, as Republicans were more energized to pick the candidate that they felt the strongest about.

Ourada: So what was voter turnout like this year?

Wheaton: All in all, 32% of all people who could vote, did so in this election. For Republicans, turnout was slightly higher at 43%. That’s one thing that's really striking to me, in a red state like Nebraska, the number of nonvoting Republicans has outnumbered those that chose to vote in every election I looked at – going back to 2006. A Pew Research analysis says that turnout in primaries like this tends to be low, so if you take that in mind Nebraska is above-average.

Ourada: The Nebraska Republican party gained about 8,000 voters ahead of this week’s primary. Do you think that had an effect on that jump?

Wheaton: It’s possible, but unfortunately there’s not a way to find out. Those people are a combination of several groups: party switchers, first-time voters or voters re-registering if they were taken off the rolls. Voters are voters, and those new Republicans get added to the denominator like everyone else. Also, 8,000 people in the grand scheme of things isn’t much. It’s barely a 2% increase in voter registration.

Ourada: Are there any other things we need to know about this data?

Wheaton: Yes, so these are unofficial results. In a few weeks the Secretary of State will provide a document with all of the races in the state – everything from local elections to the governors race – and it will note if there were any issues at a polling place. There’s a chance some numbers may change, but not in a way that could affect the results. Previous reports have just had notes about polling places that opened 15 minutes late, or a ballot got damaged . . . stuff like that.

Ourada: Finally, any interesting data gems you found over the past few days?

Wheaton: Yeah, actually. In the Democrats governor’s race – Carol Blood won every county except for one: Arthur County. It was a devastating defeat for her. She only got one vote.

Ourada: One vote?

Wheaton: As of Thursday morning, yes. Her opponent got six.

This story comes from the Midwest Newsroom, an investigative journalism collaboration including IPR, KCUR 89.3, Nebraska Public Media News, St. Louis Public Radio and NPR.

For more in-depth news from Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska, we invite you to follow us on Twitter

Daniel Wheaton is the data journalist for the Midwest Newsroom. Wheaton is based at Nebraska Public Media in Lincoln, Nebraska, and can be reached at dwheaton@nebraskapublicmedia.org
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