Jennifer Rubin has come up with an unusual interpretation of what Mark Sanford’s run-off win means:
The Sanford victory suggests one of two unpalatable conclusions about one of the most conservative states in the country: Either the base (die-hard voters who turn out in an off -year primary election) is no longer dominated by social conservatives or social conservatives don’t embrace the concerns of social conservative leaders.
Or it could have no real implications for the strength of social conservatism in South Carolina whatsoever. If there is something that has less broad significance than a primary for a special House election, I’m not sure what it would be. What Sanford’s run-off victory tells me is that a well-known former governor still has more political clout in his old Congressional district than his lesser-known rivals do, and his name recognition in his own state will always count for a lot more than anything Rick Santorum has to say. Whether that clout and name recognition will be enough to win the special election isn’t clear, but it would be a mistake to draw sweeping conclusions from that or any other special election outcome. It’s true that Santorum is irrelevant in all of this, but that was always going to be the case.
Sanford’s victory doesn’t tell us much about social conservatism in South Carolina one way or the other. Let’s recall that Newt Gingrich of all people won the South Carolina primary last year, and he ran strongest among those that identified as “very conservative”, took 45% of the evangelical vote, and received 46% of those that said the religious beliefs of a candidate were very or somewhat important. Evidently, there are a lot of “very conservative” South Carolinian Republicans that don’t judge candidates on their record of marital fidelity. According to the same CNN exit poll, evangelicals made up 64% of the 2012 primary electorate, and 64% was the same figure of voters that said that abortion should be mostly or always illegal. This is not a Republican state electorate that is likely to stop holding socially conservative views anytime soon.
Update: John Avlon’s overview of the special election helps account for why Sanford has been successful so far:
But Sanford deserves to be taken seriously and seen as many of his former constituents see him—not as a stereotypical philandering Southern politician (à la David Vitter, Edwin Edwards, and Bill Clinton), but as an uncommonly unpretentious political figure who has a long record of fighting for fiscally conservative causes and freely admits his moral failing with the woman who is now his fiancée. He has been humbled and now exhibits an empathy for the fallen he did not possess previously. This is the dynamic that has driven Sanford’s resurgence—along with a campaign-cash advantage and a high name ID—not a local disregard for his disgrace. The baggage is real and heavy, but it doesn’t define him entirely.