Former Gov. Mark Sanford took an important step in his political comeback Tuesday, winning nearly 37 percent of the Republican primary vote in the 16-candidate race.
While this strong showing has captured the attention of the national media and has critics scratching their heads, a closer look shows that we shouldn’t be particularly surprised by the results.
First, we know from the academic literature that primary elections are “low-information contests.” In other words, primary voters rely on subtle cues like name recognition, and in general-election contests partisan identification, to make voting decisions. Love him or hate him, everyone in the Lowcountry has heard of Mark Sanford.
Second, it is not surprising that an anti-Washington deficit hawk like Sanford did well in a district known for its staunch fiscal conservatism. The 1st District has elected a Republican every cycle since 1980, and in the 2012 contest tea party favorite Tim Scott won 62 percent of the vote.
While other candidates flaunted their conservative credentials during the campaign, Sanford has a demonstrated record of fiscal conservatism. As you may remember, Sanford was the nation’s first governor to turn down the Obama administration’s stimulus money.
The current political debates in Washington over the federal budget provide a nice backdrop for Sanford’s brand of politics. With his anti-Washington bent, near-universal name recognition and the low-information nature of primaries, Sanford was a “safe choice” for Lowcountry conservatives.
And third, academic studies show that scandals don’t really have the effect on candidates that you might think. The University of Houston’s Scott Basinger found that sex scandals decrease an incumbent’s vote share by about 5 percent in general elections. Financial scandals, by comparison, cost lawmakers about 8 percent.
Looking back to results from Sanford’s last political contest, the 2006 gubernatorial race, Sanford received more than 60 percent of the vote in Berkeley, Dorchester and Beaufort counties, and 57 percent in Charleston County — plenty of cushion to withstand the negative effects of a sex scandal and still win a majority of votes.
In sum, Sanford has considerable momentum as he heads to the runoff, most likely against former Charleston County Councilman Curtis Bostic. This outcome may surprise some, but Sanford’s positives — name recognition and a strong record of fiscal conservatism — carry much more weight than his big negative, the 2009 sex scandal.
Still, Sanford must clear a few more hurdles in his political comeback. His likely opponent in the runoff is popular among social conservatives, meaning that questions about Sanford’s character could feature prominently over the next two weeks. And if Sanford wins the Republican nomination, he will face a well-funded female candidate, Elizabeth Colbert Busch, who will certainly work to rally women against his candidacy.
Gibbs Knotts is a professor and department chairman of political science at the College of Charleston. Jordan Ragusa is assistant professor of political science at the College of Charleston and creator of the Rule 22 blog: rule22.wordpress.com.