Michelle Browder from Montgomery, Ala., holds an autographed purse as Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama D-Ill., speaks at Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss., Monday, March 10, 2008.

Despite the dominance of the Republican Party in Mississippi, Democrats in the state have proven they will come out in force for their party primaries.

For instance, in 2008, 434,152 people voted for either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton in Mississippi’s Democratic presidential primary. It still is a record turnout for a Mississippi presidential primary.

By contrast, 416,270 voted in the 2016 Republican presidential primary in Mississippi won by Donald Trump. That represents a record turnout for a Republican presidential primary in the state.

Obama energized Democratic voters in 2008, as Trump did Republican voters in 2016.

It will be interesting to see how many Mississippians go to the polls Tuesday to vote for either former Vice President Joe Biden or U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the two remaining legitimate Democratic candidates for president. In the 2016 Democratic primary for president in Mississippi, about 207,000 fewer people voted when Clinton upended Sanders than did in 2008 in the Obama-Clinton election.

Bobby Harrison

Will the turnout Tuesday be closer to the Obama-Clinton totals of 2008 or the Sanders-Clinton total of 2016? Mississippi, of course, is heavily Republican, but the state does have a solid block of Democratic voters. For instance, a greater percentage of Mississippians voted Democrat in the 2016 election for president than did voters in 16 other states. And further, Mississippi had a greater percentage of people voting Democrat in 2016 – 40 percent – than did its contiguous states. Mississippi just does not have many voters willing to change their party allegiance from one election to the next.

The point is that perhaps the turnout in Mississippi in the 2008 Democratic primary was an indicator that nationwide Democrats were excited, resulting in an Obama victory. In 2016, when the turnout was much less in Mississippi’s Democratic primary, Clinton lost nationwide, though, granted she did win the nationwide popular vote.

Can Biden or Sanders energize voters as did Obama? Or perhaps, more accurately, in this particular election, will people be energized to go to the polls to vote against the incumbent president?

Regardless of what the turnout is Tuesday, in the November general election Trump will be a heavy favorite in the state. The last Democratic presidential nominee to win Mississippi was fellow Southerner Jimmy Carter in 1976 – not in his re-election bid in 1980. Before the 1976 vote for Carter, the last Democrat to win the state was Adlai Stevenson in 1956.

In addition, this November Republican U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith will be a prohibitive favorite against Mike Espy who is expected to easily win Tuesday’s Democratic primary.

Espy, who has not endorsed in the presidential primary, faces primary opposition from Tobey Bartee and Jensen Borhen. Assuming Espy wins Tuesday’s primary, as expected, he has a slightly better chance of defeating Hyde-Smith in November than does Biden of upsetting Trump in Mississippi, according to a recent statewide survey conducted by nationwide pollster Mason-Dixon. Trump leads Biden in Mississippi 56-41 while Hyde-Smith leads Espy 53-43, according to the Mason-Dixon poll.

But for those Mississippi Democrats who are eternally hopeful, they might watch for the Tuesday turnout in Madison County. Nationwide, studies show that there has been a growing trend of college educated suburban residents voting Democrat. Since Mississippi has the nation’s second smallest percentage of college graduates, that phenomenon has not been as common in the state.

But in 2019, then-Attorney General Jim Hood, the Democratic candidate for governor, did win Madison County, home of the municipalities of Madison and Ridgeland – Jackson suburbs and two of the state’s most affluent municipalities with a high percentage of residents with college degrees.

Before 2019 Madison had not voted Democratic in an election for governor since 1987.

In 2016, 9,360 people voted in the Democratic presidential primary in Madison County. If that number increases significantly Tuesday, that might portend a growing Democratic constituency in the state.

In addition, in the 2018 Senate special election between Espy and Hyde-Smith held to replace Thad Cochran who had resigned earlier that year, Espy won three counties that Trump had captured in 2016 – Warren, Lowndes and Chickasaw. Espy also performed 18 percentage points better in DeSoto County, a Memphis suburb, than did Clinton in 2016 when she lost the county to Trump.

In both the 2018 Senate special election and the 2019 gubernatorial election, the Democrat got closer than Democrats in recent elections. Both Espy and Hood were just under 47 percent. In other recent statewide elections, Democrats have been around 40 percent.

Results in Madison and other counties in those two most recent statewide elections, might give Democrats little nuggets of hope they can build upon.

Tuesday’s Democratic primary could provide some hints of whether those are gold nuggets or just fool’s gold.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.