20,001: The Number That Matters In Delaware

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In the new newsstand/iPad issue of TIME, I have a story about the Republican primary for the Delaware senate seat previously held by Joe Biden. (Sign up and we will mail you a copy.) It pits the patriarch of the state Republican party, Mike Castle, against an conservative pundit riding the Tea Party wave named Christine O’Donnell. Forty four years after first winning an election in Delaware, Castle remains well loved around the state, with approval rating in the high 60s and the complete support of the state party, but he could still lose. Why? Math.

Both campaigns expect no more than about 40,000 Republicans to vote next Tuesday, which means 20,001 voters can probably win it for either candidate. That is about 2 percent of the state’s population, and just 11 percent of the state’s registered Republicans. In other words, turnout is everything. This is a state that is not known for vibrancy in the Republican party. Less than 30,000 voted in the state primary in 2008, and that was one of the biggest turnouts of the decade.

Most handicappers still give Castle the edge, but if there is an illustration of just how the tea party uprising has been able to exert so much power on the national party, this is it. To put it another way, Mike Castle could lose his place on the Republican ticket, and a heavily favored shot at a U.S. Senate seat, by the decision of less than half as many people as voted for Joe Miller in Alaska, less than one third as many people who attend Philadelphia Eagles home games, or about as many students as are enrolled at the University of Delaware.

You can read my story here.