A Primer on the Primary: The South Carolina Special Election

nunst066Voters in the lowcountry head to the polls today in a special election primary.  The vacancy in South Carolina’s 1st district opened when Republican Tim Scott accepted Governor Nikki Haley’s appointment to the Senate.  This chain of events was of course preceded by Jim DeMint’s sudden retirement in January.  Here is a primer on the today’s primary and what political science has to offer.
The Candidates

The SC-01 special election has garnered national attention due in large part to the high-profile candidates running in it.  Headlining the Republican side is former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford.  Lest you forget, in June of 2009, then-Governor Sanford went missing for six days telling staff he was hiking the Appalachian Trial but, days later, turned up at the international concourse of the Atlanta airport.  Sanford later admitted his affair Maria Belen Chapur, an Argentinian woman, to whom he is now engaged.  Also running on the Republican side is Teddy Turner, an economics teacher in the Charleston area and son of liberal icon and CNN founder Ted Turner.  The younger Turner’s challenge in this primary has been convincing lowcountry conservatives that he doesn’t share his father’s political views.  In sum, the Republican filed has a whopping 16 candidates, including a number of lesser-known but nonetheless quite strong politicians including Chip Limehouse, John Kuhn, and Larry Grooms.

On the Democratic side the field is comparatively small.  Only two candidates are running in today’s primary–Ben Frasier and Elizabeth Colbert-Bush.  Ben Frasiser is a preenial candidate in the lowcountry, losing to Tim Scott in 2010.  The latter name–in partiuclar the “Colbert” part–carries some weight both nationally and in the Charleston area.  In addition to being the business development director at the Clemson Restoration Institute, Elizabeth Colbert-Bush is of course the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert–Charleston’s proverbial favorite son.

Better Know A District

SC-01 has sent a Republican to the House every cycle since 1980.  Though Democrat Linda Ketner lost by only 4% in 2008 to Republican incumbent Henry Brown, in 2010 Tim Scott won with a whopping 65% of the vote against Ben Frasier.  Following the 2010 census, South Carolina received an extra seat during reapportionment.  The 1st district remained largely intact, but to make room for the new 7th district, the Myrtle Beach area sc1was traded for the southern part of the coast near Hilton Head.  That’s not much of a change politically; both areas are relatively conservative.  Consistent with much political science research on the subject, I’m skeptical of the claim that redistricting will have much to do with the eventual outcome.  So while Charleston is a left-leaning city, it is flanked by conservative areas to its north and south.

Political Science on Primaries

The conventional wisdom on primaries is that they foster ideological extremism.  The story goes that, to be successful in a primary, candidates must move to the left or right of the district’s median voter due to the fact that primary election voters are more ideological compared to general election voters.  Thus, candidates face a “strategic positioning dilemma.”  This is true—in part—because primaries are low turnout elections where the kinds of voters mobilized to turn out typically represent a party’s “base.”  It would be surprising today, for example, to see more than 50,000 ballots cast.  If forced to guess, my unscientific estimate is that 30,000 voters will head to the polls today.

But is there any evidence in support of the received wisdom about primaries?  For the most part, yes.  A 2007 paper published in LSQ by Brady, Han, and Pope (ungated, here) found evidence in favor of a number of the conventional claims.  On the one hand they find that ideologically moderate candidates do better in general elections than primaries (and vice versa for ideologically extreme candidates).  This represents evidence in favor of the “strategic positioning dilemma” that primary candidates face.  I would argue the Republican Party’s recent post-mortem of the 2012 election suggests they are particularly sensitive to this primary dilemma (though Jonathan Bernstein is skeptical).  At the same time, Han, Brady, and Pope find in their paper that moderate candidates are more likely to spawn a primary challenge than ideologically extreme candidates (which may explain Lindsey Graham’s most recent voting record).  Part of the challenge in studying this issue is measuring primary candidate’s ideology.  Some really interesting research by David Sparks, Frank Orlando, and Aaron King analyzed whom primary candidates followed to Twitter and whom, in turn, followed them.  Using this as a measure of a candidate’s ideology, they find support for the conventional claim that ideological extremity is rewarded in primary elections.

Two side points on this research.  First, we see similar effects with respect to presidential primaries (see this book by Nelson Polsby and Aaron Wildavsky or this paper by Gerber and Morton).  However, part of the problem lies in what kinds of voters we compare, so while there is much support for the conventional wisdom about primaries, political scientists are not in total agreement on this matter.  Second, there is some work suggesting that the primary system indeed sends more idoelogicallye extreme members to Congress and has contributed to the overall level of poalrization (see a chapter by Barry Burden here).

Mark Sanford’s Scandal

The most common question about the special election is: Can Mark Sanford win election despite his infamous sex scandal?  It’s a topic Gibbs Knotts and I addressed in a recent editorial.  Aided in part by published research on the electoral penalty of scandal, we think the answer is most certainly “yes.”  A 2012 paper by Scott Basinger (University of Houston) finds the following with respect to political scandals: (1) 60 percent of House incumbents from 1973 to 2010 survived a scandal and were successfully elected, (2) sex scandals cost incumbents about 5.3 percent of the vote, (3) financial scandals, by comparison cost lawmakers about 7.8 percent of the vote.  Basinger also finds, not surprisingly, that the most significant predictor of an incumbent’s vote share in a general election is their prior election vote share. In fact, there’s almost a 1:1 relationship between the two.

What does this mean for Sanford?  Well, in his 2006 gubernatorial race, Sanford received over 60 percent of the vote in Berkeley, Dorchester, and Beaufort counties, and 57 percent in Charleston County.  So if the past is any predictor, with a 5 percent penalty for his sex scandal, Sanford has a great shot of winning the general election.  But what about today’s primary?  It’s difficult to say, but Basinger stresses that primary elections are particularly challenging for politicians involved in a scandal. His data show that many scandal-plagued politicians simply retire rather than face the electorate and, if they decide to continue in politics, primaries represent an especially high hurdle. Basinger’s data show that scandal-tainted incumbents are almost 13 times more likely to lose a primary election than a scandal-free incumbent.

So in sum, the evidence suggests that if Sanford is able to win the Republican primary today, he stands an excellent chance of getting over the hump (innuendo!) and return to the House of Representatives.  And while he may in fact win a plurality of the vote today, he also has to survive a runoff election.  Which bring us to my prediction for the day…

Predictions Based on Inadequate Evidence?

With 16 Republican candidates, it’s very unlikely any one individual wins 50% +1 of the vote.  While no official polls have been released (at least, that I’ve seen), the word on the street is that the campaigns’ internal polls predict Sanford will get about a 33 percent of the vote.  With a plurality but not a majority, this will trigger a runoff on the Republican side on April 2nd.  Who will face Sanford in the runoff is a tossup.  Some folks are saying that second place is a battle between Chip Limehouse and Teddy Turner, with speculation that John Kuhn, Larry Grooms, and Curtis Bostic are competitive as well.  I’m going to guess and predict Teddy Turner takes second today.  Why?  He’s been the subject of some particularly negative ads lately, which suggests to me his rivals know something from their internal polling.  That’s a strong assumption, no doubt.  Whatever the result, it appears we’re headed toward a Republican runoff.  On the Democratic side, Elizabeth Colbert-Bush wins in a landslide, setting up a race between her and Mark Sanford (note: assuming Sanford survives the runoff, which could be especially challenging once he can no longer rest of his conservative credentials and name recognition).  I have a sneaking suspicion that, in the general election, Colbert-Bush can do well against Sanford (due to a combination of her name recognition, fundraising ability, and Sanford’s scandal).  Nonetheless, this is Sanford’s race to lose.  Time will tell….

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