The 2021 election is in the books. Who won? Republicans say they did, and most news outlets tend to agree just based on the number of towns where control flipped the GOP’s way. But when we compare the 2019 election to the 2021 election, the narrative gets a bit less clear.
Instead of just looking at wins and losses, it’s helpful to see how the parties performed relative to their performance in 2019. To do that, I’ve created a map that measures the swing from Democrats to Republicans, and vice versa.
The idea of “swing” from one party to another is originally a British idea, created in the 1940s to document the movement of voters toward the Conservative party in individual constituencies over consecutive elections. It can be applied here to show the movement of voters to or from the Republican Party. The basic formula, as created by British political scientist David Butler, adds the percentage increase in support for one party to the percentage decrease in support for the other, and divides the result by two.
An example would be the municipal election for first selectman in Ashford in 2019 and 2021. Democrats won this election in 2019 by 51.7% to 48.3%. Republicans flipped Ashford in 2021, winning 51% to 49%. Republicans increased their percentage of the vote 2.7%, while Democrats fell 2.7%. Since there is no third party involved, the swing is 2.7% to the Republicans.
This allows us to see how much support the parties gain or lose, even if they don’t actually win. Republicans in Newington won by a smaller margin in 2021 than in 2019, so there was a minor swing to Democrats recorded. In East Hartford, where Republicans are vastly outnumbered, the GOP mayoral candidate did better in 2021 than in 2019, so a minor swing to the Republicans was recorded. In Windsor, Democrats kept control of the town council as usual, but Republicans got a slightly higher average of the vote than they did in 2019, so a swing to the GOP was recorded. And so on.
The biggest problem was in figuring out which races to count. Connecticut’s municipal elections are a hodgepodge of different types of races dependent on the way each town forms its government. Many towns have an election for their top office, either a mayor or a first selectman, every two years – but not all of them have both a Republican and a Democrat running every year. In some cases, both parties endorse a single candidate.
Other towns only have an election for the top office once every four years, but have elections for a board of selectmen or a town council every two years. Some elect only a percentage of the town council every two years, while others are on a four-year cycle for mayor and council, but a two-year cycle for board of education! Still, other towns do not elect a first selectman or mayor separately, but instead elect a town council that chooses the leader of the majority for the top job.
It’s a big mess, and it’s very Connecticut. But this variation makes it hard to compare towns to one another, and to compare two successive municipal election years for some towns.
In this case, I made the decision to try to find townwide (i.e., not district-based) races for the town’s governing body if there was no election for a top leader in one or both of the years. I decided to take the average of votes for each party, as voters are often asked to choose more than one candidate for council. A council of five could have four Republicans and four Democrats running, voters would be asked to choose any four, and the top five vote-getters would be on the council.
I analyzed only the races for the municipal CEO positions and main legislative bodies, excluding the boards of education and finance and anything lower down the chain. This means that some significant races were not included, such as the Guilford school board. Elections for lower boards are very different creatures from town council or top office.
If it was impossible to compare elections because there is no governing body beyond a three-person board of selectmen, or because the top leader was running unopposed in one year, I did not include it on the map. Reasons for not including a town can be found by clicking on each town.
What conclusions can we draw from all this? The Connecticut Republican Party has been loudly insisting that this year was a big one for them, and that Connecticut shifted red. In that, they are correct. Many Democrats who were elected this year were elected by smaller margins or by a smaller vote share than before, and that’s what this map is meant to show. Indeed, Republicans recorded a statewide swing of 1.6% in top office or council-control races.
That’s not the whole story, of course. For those top office or council-control races, Democrats won the 2019 statewide vote 324,418 to 302,763, or 48.9% to 45.6%. In 2021, Democrats still won that vote, but it was much closer: 305,124 to 304,100, or 47.8% to 47.7%.
This swing was caused, in part, by fewer votes for third-party candidates, about 1,600 more votes for Republicans statewide, and a 19,000-vote drop-off for Democrats. The lack of races in Bridgeport and Hartford likely contributed to this. In fact, the entire Republican gain in votes could be explained by the fact that New Haven had a Republican candidate for mayor in 2021 who got 1,700 votes, while they fielded no one in 2019. That looks much less like a big red shift than it does simply a different year.
There were also many towns where Democrats did better than they did in 2019. While that doesn’t mean they necessarily won anything, their vote percentages were somewhat better.
And, most tellingly, there were an incredible number of races where it was impossible to make any kind of determination because the top officeholder ran unopposed in either 2019 or 2021. You can see that in the tan-colored towns on the map.
The ultimate upshot here is that while there was a swing toward Republicans, it’s not that simple. Local elections run on local issues and local personalities, which means that using them as a crystal ball to see what’s going to happen in the next state election is pretty much useless. Predict at your own risk!
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.