The Meaning of Mark Sanford's Win

The Meaning of Mark Sanford's Win

By Sean Trende - May 8, 2013

It’s difficult to divine much significance from special elections. They are one-off events, often marked by low turnout and unique candidates. Put differently, a single data point can’t tell us but so much about a future event that will have 435 data points.

So the conventional wisdom floating around about Mark Sanford’s win Tuesday strikes me as more or less correct. Despite all of his warts, Sanford was running in a South Carolina district that had voted for John McCain by 13 points, and where whites account for almost 75 percent of the voters. Elizabeth Colbert-Busch is reasonably liberal, and Sanford’s voting record was pretty reliably conservative. This race basically turned out how we should have anticipated; Sanford ran about three or four points behind an expected Republican performance, due to his personal issues.

But I think there is some meaning, albeit very modest, in the fact that this race turned out as it did. Democrats probably need a wave -- a historically big wave, in fact -- to take back the House in 2014.

This result isn’t consistent with such a wave beginning to form, suggesting that Democrats aren’t yet where they need to be if they hope to take back the House. If anything -- and this is extremely hard to quantify -- I would have expected Sanford’s personal issues to force him more than four points behind Mitt Romney’s showing in the district. Combined with some of the polling we’re seeing from the Massachusetts Senate race and the Virginia governor’s contest, this gives a very slight sense that the needle could be pointing more toward modest Republican gains. But I think the best we can say is that Sanford’s election is consistent with the range of outcomes I suggested last week: Between a five-seat Democratic gain and a 10 seat Republican gain.

Over-performances in special elections aren’t unique to wave elections (think Republican Bill Green’s win in a 63 percent Carter district on Manhattan’s Upper East Side before the relatively placid midterms of 1978), but wave elections are typically preceded by good special election results for the party riding the wave. In 1974, for example, Democrats won a series of historically Republican seats in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and California. In 1993, Kay Bailey Hutchison captured Democrat Lloyd Bentsen’s Senate seat, while solid GOP wins the next year in Oklahoma and Kentucky for House seats set the stage for the ’94 midterms. In 2005, Democrats enjoyed Paul Hackett’s unusually strong showing in OH-02. In early 2010, we of course had Scott Brown’s win. (1982 is the only recent wave midterm that wasn’t preceded by an unusually strong showing by the out-party.)

This shouldn’t be surprising. When the national mood turns against a party (or for it), we should expect to see the effects of that to some degree in all elections, special or otherwise.

Indeed, in the lead-up to the 2008 Democratic wave, we saw Democrats win seats against Republican opponents in Illinois’ 14th District (55 percent Bush in ’04, although Illinoisan Obama carried it in 2008), Louisiana’s 6th District (57 percent McCain in ’08) and Mississippi’s 1st District (62 percent McCain in ’08). All of the Republicans running in these elections were flawed, though arguably none was as badly flawed as Sanford.

In fact, South Carolina’s 1st District is not entirely impervious to wave elections. In 2008, Republican Henry Brown, Sanford’s bland, mostly unobjectionable successor, won re-election by only four points in a version of the district that was a point more Republican than the currently configured one. His opponent was not a traditional southern Democrat. In fact, Linda Ketner’s profile probably fit the district worse than Colbert-Busch’s: She was openly gay, endorsed same-sex marriage, wanted a cap on carbon emissions, and supported a withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

Given all of this, if Tuesday’s special election had been run in 2008, or in the run-up to 2008, Sanford probably would have lost. At best, it would have been a nail-biter for the GOP. That’s not how it turned out. Instead we got a result suggesting that the current state of play is about what you’d expect given a president with a 48 percent job approval: pretty close to neutral, or perhaps a bit favorable toward the GOP.

Of course, that’s only the state of play today. In 2009, I wrote an article that was almost the photo negative of this one in the wake of Democrat Scott Murphy’s close win over Republican Jim Tedisco in upstate New York. Obviously the tide turned against Democrats between then and the 2010 elections. There is still time for the tide to turn against either party between now and the 2014 midterms. 

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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