Cindy Hyde-Smith still favored in Mississippi Senate runoff despite controversies

The Mississippi Senate runoff was expected to be a quiet finale to the 2018 election season but instead has turned into a nationally watched affair.

Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith’s comments about attending a “public hanging,” along with a series of other controversies, have led to critical media coverage and several companies publicly disavowing her.

But while her statements and actions may make Tuesday’s special Senate election a closer affair than it might otherwise have been, make no mistake: she is a heavy favorite against Democrat Mike Espy.

Mississippi is as red as they come. It hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter won the state in 1976. The last Democrat elected to the Senate was John Stennis in 1982. The last Democrat elected governor was Ronnie Musgrove in 1999.

Mississippi’s redness showed no sign of abating when voters went to the polls earlier this month. Republicans Hyde-Smith and Chris McDaniel combined for 58% of the vote in the jungle primary, while Democrats Tobey Bartee and Espy combined for 42%. That doesn’t look very different from Republican President Donald Trump’s 18-point 2016 victory in the state.

It shouldn’t be too surprising that there wasn’t much movement off the 2016 baseline. Mississippi Democrats seem to have a low ceiling in Senate elections. No Democrat has come closer than 8 points to a Republican in the last 30 years. Only two Democrats have come within single digits.

Democrats’ inability to come close is in large part because they can’t win over white voters in the state. Mississippi voters are highly polarized along racial lines. According to the 2018 exit poll, Bartee and Espy combined won only 16% of the white vote in the first round of the special election. They took 94% of the black vote.

The problem for Democrats is this a pattern seen over and over again. Voters just don’t shift that much in the state. In the closest Senate race in the state of the last 20 years, Musgrove earned 18% of the white vote and 92% of the black vote in the 2008 special Senate election. He lost overall by 10 points.

Put another way, Espy needs to break the mold in some way. He can, for instance, win over more white voters than the traditional Mississippi Democrat does. Even if you assume Hyde-Smith’s recent comments allow Espy to capture 98% of the black vote, he’ll need to win north of 22% of the white vote to emerge victorious given traditional turnout patterns.

There’s not much of a sign that will happen. After proportionally allocating undecideds, Espy is averaging only around 16% to 17% of the white vote in polling for the runoff over the last few months.

Speaking of that polling, it’s been limited but consistent. Hyde-Smith has averaged a low double-digit lead.

Still, there just hasn’t been that much polling. Only one public poll was taken and released in the final 21 days of the campaign. (More polls were taken before that.) Based on Senate elections since 1998, the true margin of error (i.e. 95% confidence interval) is +/- 13 points for any one poll in this final 21-day period. That means this race is technically within the margin of error.

We’re also talking about a special election the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. This is not the type of election most pollsters are used to polling, or the type of election for which there is a lot of historical precedent. The inability to model off past elections is why special Senate election polling has historically been less accurate than for other Senate elections.

Indeed, Espy’s best hope is for turnout patterns to change from the first round. There is precedent for this. The percentage of African-Americans as part of the electorate rose between the first round and runoff in the last two midterm Senate runoffs in next door Louisiana. We also saw a spike in black turnout in the Alabama special Senate election last year, which was also not held on Election Day. Because of Mississippi’s highly polarized racial voting patterns, Hyde-Smith’s margin shrinks more than a point for every extra percentage of the electorate black voters makeup.

Of course, this is still Mississippi. Espy will need to win over a significantly larger percentage of white voters than he did in round one, even if turnout patterns change. I’m unaware of any polling, public or private, to suggest that is likely.