Sanford's Win Shows Political 'Experts' Don't Know Voters

May 8, 2013

Michael Bitzer

As post-election commentaries pronounce a host of reasons why former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford won his congressional race Tuesday (the better candidate in political workmanship, the novice challenger, etc.),, we might want to view a more important component of his victory: The voters of South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District.

If it wasn’t for Sanford and his baggage, most analysts would have written off the Lowcountry contest as a “safe Republican” seat. After all, Mitt Romney carried the district by 18 percent in the 2012 presidential election.

In fact, this kind of “landslide” district has become the national norm in U.S. House contests.

In Nate Silver’s analysis of the 2012 U.S. House races, he found that only 35 districts — less than 10 percent of the 435 contests — were “swing” districts, meaning that the district results were within five percentage points of the national popular vote margin.

More importantly, it appears that House elections are showing a closer alignment with the overall electoral patterns of voters, especially using the presidential returns.

In the 1st Congressional District election, I took the precinct returns from the 2012 presidential election and asked, would those presidential results have any possible predictive power to an election six months later? 

Meaning, would Romney’s performance in each precinct give an indicator of Sanford’s performance as well?  Conversely, would Obama’s performance indicate how Colbert Busch would perform as well? 

With a few exceptions (most notably a precinct where Romney got only 8 percent of the vote, but Sanford got 34 percent), the vote share alignment between Romney and Sanford is pretty striking. 

So what might this mean?  One explanation might be that the United States is becoming more “parliamentary” in its national legislative elections: it doesn’t matter who the candidate is (hiking boots and all the relevant baggage), but what does matter is the voters’ party allegiance. 

This would tend to make us more along the lines of British elections, where the voters cast their ballots for the party; the “candidate” standing as that party’s choice to be the member of Parliament really doesn’t matter, because that candidate was picked by the party without any voter input.

Granted, U.S. primary elections have become “the” election, rather than the general election, because, as Silver pointed out, more and more districts are “landslide” in their behavior (117 Democratic and 125 GOP districts in 2012’s House elections were 20 points or more above the national popular vote). 

So, it appears that even in a contest headed by a candidate who suffered from both self-inflicted wounds and a deep drive to win, the district behaved as it should — and gave the landslide win that most of us should have expected, but didn’t.