Art of the single shot: How less can mean more when voters get to choose two

Mapping the Vote is a collaboration between the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting and the Arizona Capitol Times. The project included a precinct-level analysis of Arizona election data. Unless otherwise noted, you can republish these stories for free if you follow these rules.

By Evan Wyloge and Hank StephensonArizona Capitol Times

At first glance it might make sense for the two main political parties to fight over every seat possible.

But when it comes to Arizona’s House of Representatives, where voters elect two candidates to represent each district, a more tactful approach can sometimes pay off.

Instead of running two candidates for both possible seats, a single candidate — a “single-shot” — in a district where the conditions are right can result in one win where two candidates might have produced two losses.

The strategy is an election mathematics trick. The goal for a single-shot candidate is to get core supporters to cast only one vote in the race and persuade others to split their votes between the candidate and an opponent.  That maximizes the candidate’s own numbers and dilutes the opponents’ numbers.

A joint analysis by the Arizona Capitol Times and the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting shows how two single-shot candidates beat the odds in their uphill-battle districts: Democrat Eric Meyer in Legislative District 28 and Republican Ethan Orr in Legislative District 9.

Meyer, who was first elected as a single-shot candidate in 2008, kept his seat in the Legislature this year after he and two incumbent Republican House members were drawn into a single northeast Phoenix district during the decennial redistricting. Meyer, who took on Republicans Kate Brophy McGee and Amanda Reeve, came in second despite the district’s moderate Republican registration advantage.

And Orr, now a freshman in House, came in second in his north Tucson district against two non-incumbent Democratic candidates, despite his district’s slight Democratic registration edge.

In both cases, the single-shot underdogs were successful because a few important factors lined up just right. They took advantage of ideologically and demographically fractured electorates in their districts. Additionally, their personal narratives appealed to more than just their base voters and a strong voter education and mobilization effort about the single-shot strategy helped make the math work.

The right district makeup

Not every district is ripe for a single-shot strategy, but LDs 28 and 9, in mirror-image fashion, show where it can work.

First, the district needs to be relatively competitive. LD28 has a roughly 10-point Republican edge, and LD9 has about a seven-point Democratic edge, according to the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission’s competitiveness analysis.

But for a single-shot candidate, it’s important that those competitive numbers are created by clear demographic and partisan divides, not by a homogeneous electorate of swing voters.

Both Meyer and Orr said this helped.  It provided a distinct target of strong core supporters who only have to be mobilized and educated about the single-shot strategy, leaving a distinct target of swing voters to be persuaded using their personal message.

LD28 is mostly white and Republican, with Paradise Valley, the Camelback corridor and wealthy areas directly surrounding Camelback Mountain falling into that category and geographically making up the bulk of the district. There are pockets, however, all along the northern, western and southern edges of the district that are densely concentrated with Hispanic and Democratic voters.

LD28 precincts colored by partisan registration advantage.
Precincts outlined in white show where Hispanic voting age population composition is greatest. Click on individual precincts for partisan and demographic details.

LD9 is more evenly split among Democrats and Republicans, but like LD28, they are segregated geographically. The northern part of the district on the outskirts of the central Tucson area is more Republican, while the urban center leans Democratic with a higher Hispanic composition.

Both Meyer and Orr got more votes from their respective stronghold areas, but they were also able to explain to voters how a single-shot candidacy works and how to use their vote — and non-vote — strategically.

LD9 precincts colored by partisan registration advantage.
Precincts outlined in white show where Hispanic voting age population composition is greatest. Click on individual precincts for partisan and demographic details.

The strategy-education campaign

With both Meyer and Orr, a key to success is evident in precinct-level election data: In precincts where the single-shot candidate got a greater percentage of the vote, fewer votes were cast in the race.

LD28 undervote trends

Eric Meyer vote vs undervote

Kate Brophy McGee vote vs undervote

Amanda Reeve vote vs undervote


LD9 undervote trends

Ethan Orr vote vs undervote

Victoria Steele vote vs undervote

Mohur Sarah Sidwha vote vs undervote

Known as the “undervote,” this figure shows where a voter either didn’t cast a vote, or cast fewer than allowed.  And it demonstrates that supporters of the single-shot candidate knew to cast a ballot for only their candidate and not a candidate from the opposing party. The ballot clearly explains to select two candidates in the race, although voting for one candidate is allowed.

Candidates opposing the single-shot candidate want the opposite — the maximum number of voters casting ballots for two people.

Without educating voters about the single-shot strategy, telling them that they will need to cast just one vote and throw the other away, the strategy will not work.

Both Orr and Meyer said they don’t think they could have overcome their voter registration disadvantage in their districts without using the single shot strategy.

Meyer hammered the strategy in his district. When campaigning to Republican households, he humbly asked for their second vote. When he knocked on Democratic doors, he drove home the point with a polished pitch that ended with “If you only vote for me, it makes it easier for me to win.”

When it came to independent voters in the district, Meyer noted that even if he asked for their single vote, if that larger pool of independent voters wanted to cast a ballot for a Democrat and a Republican, he would inevitably get one, while only one of his two opponents would get one, furthering the single-shot strategy.

Meyer said all of his volunteers knew to stress the strategy, and knew which kind of voter they were talking with when they knocked on a door. He also stressed the single-shot strategy in mailers targeted to specific types of voters in his district.

Orr shied away from asking voters to disregard their second vote, and he let the Pima County GOP push that message instead.

Orr said the Pima County Republican Party informed its members about the single shot strategy, but he didn’t bring it up at Republican events because he didn’t want to send a contradictory or hyper-partisan message.

“What I didn’t want to do was turn it into an R versus D race,” he said. “I wanted to turn it into a Tucson community race. Me going to Republicans and saying, ‘Don’t vote for the Democrats,’ would have made it much easier for Democrats to say, ‘Don’t vote for the Republican.’”

The standout candidate

Both of the 2012 single-shot victors have deep ties to the areas they represent and personal stories that have a naturally broad appeal.

Orr is a former adjunct professor at the University of Arizona who now works with Linkages, a nonprofit that helps the developmentally disabled get jobs. He was involved with the Democratic Party when he was in college in the 1990s, and can speak to a diverse crowd.

Pima County GOP chair Carolyn Cox said Orr’s dynamic personal history, which resonates with both Democrats and Republicans, was the key factor allowing him to win in the district, which has a 7 percentage point advantage for Democrats.