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June 03, 2014 3:55 PM Keys to MS GOP SEN

By Ed Kilgore

For as much talk as we’ve all heard about the Mississippi Republican Senate primary today, there’s been relatively little analysis of how, mechanically, one candidate or the other is going to win or lose. Polling has been uneven. Both campaigns have put money and effort into using the Photographing of Rose Cochran By “Constitutional Kelly” issue against the other. Yes, you can talk all day about this race as a barometer of the relative national strength of the Republican Establishment or the Tea Party, but that doesn’t tell you much about who is actually likely to win.

It’s understandable that folks want to hyper-nationalize this race. Both candidates are archetypes of the GOP factions that are allegedly involved in a “civil war:” Cochran has been in office forever, with a conservative record that entirely lacks the verve, and well, the fury conservatives want these days. And McDaniel has the undivided support of all the big right-wing national groups. He has also been on the offensive through most of the campaign, while Cochran refuses to debate him and is showing a sort of haziness about major issues that is perilous for a candidate who will turn eighty during the term for which he is running.

But there are complications. Yes, Cochran is behaving like an appropriator, but has done so representing a state even Ayn Rand would be tempted to help out, such is its entrenched, ancient poverty. The “Establishment” supporting him in Mississippi is very, very conservative in its own right. And he seems to have multiple “bases” in the electorate—not only the Jackson area he once represented in the House, but the coastal region that has benefited from the military largesse he’s helped bring in and maintain, and the Delta region that has long been fearful of the kind of right-wing “populism” that rocks too many economic boats.

So kudos to FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten for trying to make sense of it all today:

There have been very few high-profile, competitive Republican primaries in Mississippi over the past decade. The Republican presidential primary in 2012, however, suggests we shouldn’t put too much stock in the polling. In that primary, Mitt Romney led Newt Gingrich by 5.4 percentage points and Rick Santorum by 8 points in the polling average. Santorum ended up beating Gingrich by 1.6 points and Romney by 2.1 points.
Indeed, pollsters seem to have different ideas of who is going to vote. The past four polls released publicly had wildly different estimates of the 65-and-older vote, from 33 percent in a Polling Company survey to 58 percent in a Harper Polling survey. That’s a big deal because Cochran is expected to do better with older voters. The Polling Company poll had McDaniel up 4 percentage points; Harper Polling had Cochran up 5. In the 2012 primary, voters 65 and older made up 33 percent of the electorate, according to exit polls.
Given that this is a non-presidential year and exit polls typically estimate a higher percentage of young voters than other surveys, older voters will probably make up 35 to 40 percent of voters. Polling in the South has also had a tendency to underestimate the more conservative candidate. In other words, Cochran’s 1-point lead in the polling average isn’t worth much. I might actually say McDaniel is the favorite, but who knows? Polling in the South is a mess.

Tell me about it.

Regionally, Enten figures the race could be affected by a red-hot GOP House primary in the 4th congressional district, which includes both pro-Cochran coastal counties and pro-McDaniel inland areas. But the ballgame may come down to Memphis-area DeSoto County, where nobody is an inherent favorite.

So even if you look closely for the “keys” of this contest, it’s really a true tossup. My money’s on McDaniel in a squeaker, but that is merely a hunch.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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