The immediate punditry on Tuesday’s Mississippi GOP Senate primary has focused on the “establishment versus Tea Party” trope. There’s a lot to this, but the final results might be more easily explained by two simple factors present in every campaign: regionalism and campaign tactics.
I encourage everyone interested in this to look at the county returns. If you do, you can’t escape the fact that McDaniel owed his slim victory primarily to overwhelming percentages of the vote in his home base in Hattiesburg. He represents Jones County in the Mississippi state senate, and on Tuesday he won 85 percent of the vote there. Moreover, the former Hattiesburg-based radio host also did extraordinarily well in the counties in the Hattiesburg media market. He won every one of those counties, normally with over 70 percent of the vote. His statewide margin was a shade under 1,400 votes, but he carried Jones by 9,200 and the rest of the media market by another 8,200. He also carried three neighboring counties just outside of the media market (Jeff Davis, Clarke, and Smith) by another 1,500 votes.
Some of this strength is clearly due to the ideological basis of his campaign, but the huge margin is almost certainly due to the “friends and neighbors” effect often seen in campaigns. This effect was most recently on display in the Georgia GOP Senate primary, where Savannah-based Congressman Jack Kingston advanced to the runoff largely because of his overwhelming strength in a group of contiguous, Southeastern counties in or near his current of former congressional districts. Like McDaniel, Kingston won most of these counties with well over 70 percent of the vote, and won those on the borders of his core district with between 60 and 69 percent. Those counties, which contain less than 10 percent of the state population and less than 25 percent of the GOP statewide turnout, comprised over 40 percent of Kingston’s support. McDaniel’s support was similarly concentrated in areas where TV advertising was simply not going to define voters’ impressions because they already knew who Chris McDaniel was.
But even that would not have been enough but for another curious factor. Mississippi has six major media markets based in-state, but substantial parts of the state are served by four out-of-state markets: Memphis, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and Mobile-Pensacola. If one looks at the six counties in the three southern out-of-state markets and the three counties in the Memphis media market with substantial numbers of Republicans that are also part of the Census Bureau’s Memphis metropolitan area, one finds that McDaniel also carried eight of these counties. Moreover, he carried them heavily, with between 56 and 69 percent in the eight counties in which he won. Including Hancock County, which he lost and borders the Biloxi market on the Katrina-stricken Gulf Coast, McDaniel beat Cochran by over 8,900 votes in the out-of-state, core Memphis-area counties.
This is incredibly odd. McDaniel did not beat Cochran with over 57 percent of the vote in any other county of the state that was not part of the Hattiesburg region. He lost to Cochran in the rural parts of the Memphis market not in the Memphis metro area; he even lost in the rural northeast, Columbus media market that was Rick Santorum’s base in the 2012 GOP presidential primary.
In short, Thad Cochran beat Chris McDaniel handily in the five, non-Hattiesburg, in-state media markets. He beat McDaniel comfortably even when Hattiesburg is thrown into the mix. He lost solely because he ran well behind his showing in the rest of Mississippi in these fringe, out-of-state media market counties where it is very expensive to advertise per Mississippi voter reached owing to the high percentage of non-Mississippi residents in the market.
That’s the sort of result you would expect to see if only one candidate were on the air in those markets, or if one candidate focused its media more closely on certain parts of that market (i.e., perhaps McDaniel bought on Memphis drive time radio while Cochran did not).
If that did happen, if Cochran’s outside allies avoided these markets because of the cost while McDaniel’s allies did not, it was the classic case of penny wise and pound foolish. Had Cochran simply run even with McDaniel in those counties, he would have won enough votes to have won without a runoff. Had he replicated his showing in the Columbus market, he would have won with thousands of votes to spare.
I’m sure the truth won’t come out until after the runoff. McDaniel’s allies have no reason to share this information and Cochran’s have no reason to admit they might have goofed. But if this is why the tea-party-backed candidate won, it shows that in a campaign, the truth isn’t always what meets the eye.
—Henry Olsen is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.