An Ideological Mapping of South Carolina’s Senate Candidates

Flag-map_of_South_CarolinaWhen it comes to politics, South Carolina is full of intrigue. From Lee Atwater’s Southern Strategy and the 2000 Republican primary to Joe Wilson’s “You Lie!” and Stephen Colbert’s rally with Herman Cain, the Palmetto State routinely produces compelling political storylines.
In the most recent iteration, South Carolina has not one, but two (!) Senate contests this fall. Lindsey Graham’s race has garnered the most attention.  Until last week, Graham had just two challengers: Democrat Brad Hutto and Libertarian Victor Kocher.  But on July 14th, Thomas Ravenel submitted 17,000 signatures in his attempt to qualify as an independent candidate.  Ravenel is perhaps best known for three things: (1) for being the son of Arthur Ravenel Jr., a well connected state politician from whom the bridge in Charleston is named (2) for being the star of the Bravo reality series “Southern Charm” and (3) for his 2007 arrest on federal cocaine distribution charges.

Needless to say, Ravenel’s legal troubles have received the lion’s share of attention.  But as an old post document, research has shown that political scandals don’t matter as much in congressional elections as most people assume.  If Ravenel loses, it’s not because of his legal past.  Rather, election outcomes are often easily explained by the fundamentals: things like name recognition, party identification, the economy, and the ideological positioning of candidates relative to voters.

Which brings me to the topic of today’s post…

Given South Carolina’s deep-red hue, candidates regularly position themselves as the “true conservative” and label their opponents as “moderates” or worse in Lindsey Graham’s case, “liberals.”

Who’s “conservative” and who’s “liberal” in South Carolina’s Senate election?

I feel a chart coming on…


In the above chart we can see the relative ideological position of each candidate in South Carolina’s general Senate election.  At “zero” a candidate is considered a perfect moderate while liberals and conservatives are located in their familiar left-to-right orientation. Both distributions represent the ideological positioning of all Democratic Senate candidates (blue) and all Republican Senate candidates (red) from 1980 to 2012. Each candidate’s initials (and the corresponding vertical line) denote their position in the spectrum (BH=Hutto, LG=Graham, TR=Ravenel, and VK=Kocher).  Finally, because ideology is a tenuous construct, the chart includes Tim Scott (TS), Jim DeMint (JD) and Fritz Hollings (FH) for comparison purposes.

Some notable findings:

  • Lindsey Graham is indeed the most liberal Republican.  Still, it’s important to keep in mind that his positioning is firmly in the middle of all Republican candidates.
  • Ravenel is more conservative than Graham.  In fact, he’s roughly as conservative as both Tim Scott and Jim DeMint (though still just to their left).  Ostensibly, you could say that Ravenel would be a good ideological fit for state-wide office.
  • While Brad Hutto is a Democrat, he’s actually on the conservative side of the aisle.  In fact, we can see that Hutto is almost a mirror image of Fritz Hollings.  While both Hollings and Hutto would be considered “moderates” in the above spectrum, as they are closer to “zero” than either party’s median, Hutto is equally conservative as Hollings is liberal.
  • Tim Scott and Jim DeMint occupy almost exactly the same ideological position, which is interesting given that Scott was appointed to replace DeMint when he suddenly retired.
  • Finally, Kocher is located in the far right of the distribution, which makes him exceptionally conservative.  In particular, Kocher is more conservative than 98.7% of all candidates.


Methodological Details:

The data for this figure come from the Database on Ideology, Money in Politics, and Elections (also known as “DIME”) and have been made available by Stanford political scientists Adam Bonica.  In brief, Bonica’s dataset uses campaign donations to “scale” all candidates in the same policy space.  You can access the data and further information here.

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