Do Conservatives Have an Advantage in GOP Runoffs in the South?

The CW holds that Chris McDaniel enters the June 24 runoff contest against Sen. Thad Cochran with a decided advantage. True to the spirit of FiveThirtyEight, Harry Enten chose to examine the recent historical record to examine whether three characteristics about McDaniel–his first-place finish in the primary, his lower elected-official profile, and his more conservative ideological reputation–have been conducive to strong Senate or gubernatorial runoff performances in the past (all in the South).

Enten concludes there’s really not much reason to assume McDaniel is the front-runner he is reputed to be. I respect that, but if you look at the data he presents, there are some questionable assumptions he makes.

First of all, the data about the performance of primary leaders strikes me as largely irrelevant to the Mississippi runoff, for the simple reason that the two candidates virtually tied. “McDaniel and Cochran in Runoff” was the election night story, not “McDaniel finishes first.” And from a more practical perspective, it’s hard to imagine that in a three-week race involving a six-term incumbent, Cochran’s going to be able to generate sympathy (or opposition over-confidence) as an “underdog.” Furthernore, in many of the primaries Enten is looking at for comparisons, there were multiple candidates, many of them formidable, whose constituencies (via endorsements or just natural affinity) switched to one of the other runoff candidate, tilting the odds. That’s not the case in Mississippi this year, where the third candidate was a nobody who lucked into a few thousand votes. So I truly do think place-of-primary-finish is irrelevant, or even misleading, in this contest.

Second of all, Enten looks at elected-office-status to see if runoff candidates with lower profiles tend to have an advantage. He concludes they seem to have one–on the plausible theory that they have an opportunity to become better known in a second campaign–but there are counter-examples, too, so this criterion provides a slight lift for McDaniel.

It’s the third perspective where I think Enton’s analysis goes seriously wrong. He asks if the more conservative candidate tends to do better in GOP runoffs, and concludes it’s a wash.

Now his “most conservative candidate” analysis is based on some Stanford study of donor characteristics that I am not able to access. But I know my southern politics, and Enten’s labeling is seriously questionable, particularly for the more recent period when RINO-purging has become a blood sport in the southern wing of the GOP. The two “less conservative candidates” who gained ground in runoffs in South Carolina in 2002 and 2004 were none other than Mark Sanford and Jim DeMint. In 2010, Nikki Haley, a Sanford protege prominently backed by Sarah Palin and Erick Erickson, is supposedly the less conservative rival to Henry McMasters, a time-serving Establishment pol. I don’t think so.

A bit more plausibly, Enten labels 2010 Alabama gubernatorial runoff winner Robert Bentley as less conservative than rival Bradley Byrne. I suppose you could look at it that way if you focus on the savage adversarial relationship between Byrne and Alabama unions, who were alleged to be secretly helping Bentley. But on the other hand, Byrne had been a long-standing member of the Establishment wing of the Alabama GOP; Bentley was a prominent social conservative endorsed by Mike Huckabee; and in my contemporary analysis of the runoff at–ahem!–FiveThirtyEight I concluded Bentley won by comfortably carrying a majority of the votes earlier cast for hyper-conservatives Tim James and Judge Roy Moore.

Even if you disagree with me about any of these characterizations, it’s very clear that the Mississippi runoff is an ideological struggle in which one candidate–McDaniel–is clearly the “most conservative” by any measure. There’s not much data on runoffs where that is the case, for the simple reason that southern Republicans who don’t proclaim themselves militant conservatives these days don’t make runoffs to begin with, don’t even bother to run (like Georgia’s Saxby Chambliss) or amass such overwhelming political and financial power that they don’t find themselves in Thad Cochran’s position (e.g., Lindsey Graham and Lamar Alexander).

Enten’s right we are in low-sample-size territory here, which means the assumption McDaniel’s going to cruise to an easy victory is not really warranted by empirical data. But I’d say the fact that McDaniel is the vehicle for a national and local effort to pick off the most vulnerable of “Establishment Republicans,” while Cochran is just another old pol who probably ran for one term too many, is enough to figure Thad is in big trouble.

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.