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How to watch the Mississippi governor’s race results like a political pro

Mississippians cast their votes Tuesday in the contentious governor’s race between Gov. Tate Reeves and Democratic challenger Brandon Presley.

Independent candidate Gwendolyn Gray, who dropped out of the race in early October, withdrew too late to be removed from the ballot. Her candidacy could force the first gubernatorial runoff in the state’s history.

Mississippi Today’s political team compiled key themes to watch tonight as the results come in.

LIVE RESULTS: Mississippi’s general election 2023

Will there be a runoff?

Pre-election polling from both Democrats and Republicans showed Reeves right at or just under earning 50% of the vote. If Gray, the independent candidate, earned enough of a protest vote on Tuesday, the top two vote-getters will face each other in a Nov. 28 runoff election.

The number to watch here is between 3% and 4%. One Republican consultant shared with Mississippi Today that they believe if Gray gets at least 3% of the overall statewide vote, it could be enough to keep Reeves or Presley under 50% and force a runoff. A second Republican consultant said it may take 4% support for Gray to force a runoff.

In 2019, there were two third-party candidates who ran against Reeves, the Republican nominee, and Jim Hood, the Democratic nominee. Together, those two third-party candidates only garnered 1.3% of the overall vote.

Did Reeves get enough conservative support?

Reeves this cycle notably struggled with firing up voters of the Republican Party’s most conservative wing.

If counties that are considered conservative strongholds turn out in numbers equal to or better than 2019, this could be a sign that Reeves has weathered struggles with GOP voter enthusiasm.

Jones County, considered by many the state’s capital of the far-right conservative movement, is a bellwether here. In 2019, Reeves earned 13,784 votes in Jones County — 65% of the county’s total 21,257 residents who cast ballots. If Reeves gets anything less than 13,784 votes today, that could be a sign of lower-than-needed conservative support.

Pearl River County, another strongly conservative locale, is another to watch. In 2019, Reeves earned 10,083 votes here — 77% of the county’s total 13,151 residents who cast ballots. It looks like 10,000 is the magic number for Reeves here, and anything less could show broader problems among Mississippi conservatives.

Did Presley get enough Black voter support?

Presley, if he has any chance of winning or forcing Reeves to a runoff, needs high levels of Black voter support. He has spent 2023 earnestly trying to earn that support, and numerous Black local elected officials have served as his surrogate for months.

Hinds County, of course, is the most critical county in this regard. It’s the most populous county in the state, and it’s 69% Black. In 2019, Hood, the Democrat, beat Reeves here by 56 points (78% to 22%). Hood beat Reeves in Hinds County by 40,527 votes — by far the largest head-to-head defeat in that election.

If Presley has upped that Hinds County margin of victory today, that could be enough to vault the Democrat’s campaign.

Of major note in Hinds County tonight: There were reports of at least nine precincts across the county that ran out of ballots at various points during the day. Multiple lawsuits were filed attempting to extend precinct hours, and less than an hour before the schedule 7 p.m. polling close time, a chancery judge extended the hours at some precincts.

The Gulf Coast battleground

The populous three counties of the Gulf Coast, by many accounts, secured Reeves’ victory in 2019 as he ran up a more than 22,400 vote margin over Hood. Reeves’ margin of victory in those three counties was about half of his overall margin of victory statewide. 

Reeves topped Hood by 18 points in the second-most populous Harrison County. The Coast is a Republican stronghold, but even by that measure Hood performed poorly in turning out Coast Democrats. 

Presley and his campaign have worked hard on the Coast, and focused on turning out Black voters in North Gulfport and Turkey Creek in Harrison County, Moss Point in Jackson County, and other relatively large Democratic areas.

Presley stands little chance of winning the Republican-majority Coast, but if he can substantially reduce Reeves’ margin there he can remain competitive statewide.

How do suburban voters swing?

Presley’s campaign has also targeted voters in suburban counties that typically vote Republican but have trended more toward Democrats in recent years.

In 2019, Reeves shellacked Hood by 23 points — or nearly 8,600 votes — in the state’s third-most populous DeSoto County. While DeSoto remains strongly Republican leaning, its growing population has shifted to include a larger Black voting age population more likely to vote Democratic. Plus, Presley has performed well there in his district runs for Public Service Commissioner, and his campaign this cycle has focused much effort, including a get-out-the-vote ground game, in DeSoto County. It’s highly unlikely Presley could win DeSoto, but cutting losses drastically compared to those Hood suffered there would be something of a victory in an area where Reeves ran up his margin four years ago.

Rankin County, Reeves’ home county and the largest suburban county in the Jackson metro, is another one to watch. In 2019, Reeves won 29,861 votes in Rankin County — 64% of the county’s total 46,654 residents who cast ballots. Presley likely has no hopes of flipping this county, but watch for a smaller Reeves margin of victory in Rankin County. If the margin is less than 16,793 votes, that could be a sign that Presley’s strategy to appeal to moderates worked some.

Staying in the Jackson metro area, don’t forget about Madison County, which was a bright spot for Democrats in 2019. Hood garnered 19,670 votes or 50.4% to become the first Democrat since 1987 to win Madison County. Reeves won 48.7% of the vote in 2019. If Presley expects to win or force a runoff, he needs to at least match Hood’s performance from 2019.

Presley’s northeast Mississippi home

Another county to watch closely that could signal suburban voter support: Lee County in northeast Mississippi.

In the early 2000s, Presley served as mayor of Nettleton, which is situated on the Lee County/Monroe County line. To be successful, Presley needs to do much better in his backyard of Lee County, the most populous county in the area, than Hood did in 2019. Even though Hood is from Chickasaw County, which is contiguous to Lee, he was still swamped by Reeves in Lee County four years ago. In 2019, Reeves captured 14,672 votes or 58.3% in Lee to 10,293 or 40.9% for Hood.

Presley might not need to win Lee County to win or force a runoff, but he needs to do much better than Hood did in 2019. Needless to say, Presley needs to outperform Hood’s 2019 effort throughout northeast Mississippi.

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