Identifying and analyzing emerging trends in campaigns and elections.

Mark Sanford: Anything but Conventional

In House, Primary on March 21, 2013 at 10:56 am

Disgraced former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford successfully cleared the initial obstacle on his political comeback trail earlier this week, but how will he fare in the fast-approaching Republican run-off?

On the heels of his first-place finish in the special 1st Congressional District Republican primary election, the ex-governor and congressman, who is trying to rehabilitate himself politically from his international extra-marital affair that ended his marriage and soured his final year in office, must now win over a significant segment of Republican voters who supported another candidate.

Curtis Bostic, the former two-term Charleston County councilman who placed a distant second to Sanford, is tasked with converting an even larger portion of that same group. Though both man’s message is identical — each claims to be the strongest candidate in relation to cutting government spending — their campaign strategic and tactical challenges are much different.

On Tuesday, 53,657 Republicans participated in the special primary election. From that group, 19,812 individuals, or 36.9 percent voted for Sanford. Bostic attracted 7,149 votes (13.3 percent). Though placing second by less than one percent over third-place finisher Larry Grooms caused the triggering of an automatic recount under South Carolina election law, the latter conceded defeat, hence the original vote tallies will stand. The remaining 26,696 people, or 49.8 percent, chose a Republican candidate other than the first- and second-place finishers. It is the members of this group who will likely determine the run-off result.

As is the case in all run-off elections, the secondary turnout will be smaller than the original primary voting universe. In South Carolina, the typical drop-off from primary to secondary election tends to only be in the 15 percent range, however. In fact, the last time a run-off occurred in the 1st Congressional District (2010) the drop-off was exactly 15 percent. If this figure remains constant, then we can expect approximately 45-47,000 total run-off votes. This means the winner must at least secure between 22,500 and 23,500 votes. Though Bostic’s total vote is much smaller than Sanford’s (meaning he will have to attract many more conversion votes) his path to victory may actually be the easier one.

With universal name identification in the Palmetto State’s southeastern corner, it is certain that every Republican voter participating in Tuesday’s election is familiar with, and has an opinion of, Mark Sanford. The fact that a full 63 percent of those people chose not to vote for him may be an ominous sign for his run-off prospects.

The key to winning the run-off could be the already defeated candidates. If they, as a group, begin to announce support for Bostic and turn over their organizations to help in his voter turnout operation, Sanford could be in deep trouble. Should several of the candidates endorse Sanford or even hesitate in backing Bostic, then the former governor might be able to cobble together the necessary number of votes. The next few days are critical to this process.

Sanford has time and money on his side. Bostic clearly has a strong organization and the ability to contrast Sanford’s negative image. Should Bostic win the run-off, the seat will be his as Democratic nominee Elizabeth Colbert Busch will be no match for a more positive Republican. Should Sanford squeak through to obtain the nomination, then she will be very much alive and the national GOP will again have to expend large amounts of money to protect what should be a very safe seat.

Most historical political patterns would suggest a Bostic victory in this situation, but the Sanford scenario has already proven anything but conventional.

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