Special Elections Are, Well, Special

TNR’s Nate Cohn has the essential preview for today’s special congressional election in the first district of SC, and appropriately enough, he’s not making a prediction. Aside from all the “special” features of this contest–the Democrat’s gold-plated resume and celebrity brother; the Republican’s bizarre story of abandoning his wife and his day-job as governor for an Argentinian lover–such elections are always a crap-shoot in which financial resources and turnout patterns are unusually important.

Cohn notes that perceptions of the race’s volatility have been heavily influenced by polls from Public Policy Polling, which has conducted three polls matching Sanford against Colbert Bush. The first showed the Democrat up by two points; the second by nine points; the third showed Sanford edging ahead. Most of the differences, however, involved turnout, not swing voters swinging.

In retrospect, it’s unclear whether Colbert Busch ever had a large lead. The PPP survey that showed her up by 9 points assumed an electorate that voted for Romney by just 5 points, even though the district supported Romney by 18 points in November. In a low-turnout special election, it’s certainly possible for the electorate to differ quite a bit from the November electorate, but a 13-point gap was a little tough to swallow. That’s particularly true in South Carolina’s first, where nearly half of all Obama voters were black, and so an electorate that voted for Romney by just 5 points probably requires relatively high black turnout. Indeed, the PPP poll found that blacks represented 18 percent of the electorate, up from 12 percent in their first general election survey. But African American turnout is usually low in midterm elections—and perhaps especially low in a special election—making it tougher to accept PPP’s finding….

Now, Sanford leads by 1 point, 47-46, a 10-point reversal from PPP’s survey two weeks ago. The shift isn’t due to changes in preference, but mainly the composition of the electorate, which voted for Romney by 13 points, up 8 points from two weeks ago. Black turnout is back to just 13 percent of the electorate, a decline of 5 points from their prior poll. On balance, the composition of the electorate looks a lot like their first survey—which had Colbert Busch up 47-45 in late March—and bears little resemblance to their second.

Now this is not to say the campaigns had no impact on the contest. It was obvious from the get-go that the whole ballgame for Mark Sanford was to get Republicans who weren’t happy with him to show up in semi-normal numbers by running a highly partisan and ideological campaign against Busch, and that’s exactly what he did. According to Cohn’s take on PPP’s numbers, the voters who will probably determine the outcome are heavily Republican and will have to decide whether they want to brave rainy weather to go cast a vote for the bumbling adulterer Sanford and smite the union stooge Busch (with the added complication that many of them figure they could get rid of Busch in November a lot more easily than Sanford, a political Lazarus of the highest order).

For us political junkies, the end of this campaign is a bit sad, since there’s no telling when or if we will again get this sort of off-year entertainment (though the T-Mac/Cooch tilt in Virginia will almost certainly have its moments). But I wouldn’t bet the farm on any particular outcome.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.