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South Carolina election a dead heat, Democratic robopoll shows

May 06, 2013|By Paul West
  • Elizabeth Colbert Busch is best known as the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert. Mark Sanford's extramarital affair with an Argentine TV reporter drew international media coverage.
Elizabeth Colbert Busch is best known as the sister of comedian Stephen… (Bruce Smith, Mic Smith,…)

The high-profile House race between former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch is going down to the wire as a dead heat, according to a Democratic poll released Sunday night.

The survey, by Public Policy Polling, shows Republican Sanford with a statistically insignificant 47%-46% advantage heading into Tuesday's special election.  Green Party candidate Eugene Platt, whose campaign symbol is a frog and whose slogan is "leap of faith," is getting 4%, according to the poll.

PPP, generally considered a reliable polling organization, conducts automated telephone surveys, rather than using live telephone operators.  An earlier PPP poll had given the Democrat a nine-percentage-point lead, but her campaign said those results did not match their internal surveys, which showed a much closer race.

Sanford's 2009 extramarital affair with an Argentine TV reporter -- whom he visited as his office said he was hiking the Appalachian Trail -- and his subsequent divorce drew international media coverage, as has the current campaign. 

The new poll revealed a decided gender gap among respondents, with men favoring Sanford, 51% to 40%, and women siding with Colbert Busch, 51% to 43%.

Sanford, once considered a Republican presidential prospect, is pursuing a comeback two years after leaving the governor's office. In the 1990s, he represented the coastal Carolina district, which includes portions of the city of Charleston, its suburbs and the barrier resort islands of Kiawah and Hilton Head.  The seat became vacant earlier this year when Gov. Nikki Haley appointed Rep. Tim Scott to replace Sen. Jim DeMint, who quit the Senate to run a conservative think tank in Washington.

Colbert Busch, a political neophyte, is best known as the sister of TV comedian Stephen Colbert, who helped raise money for her campaign. National Democrats have invested heavily in the race, spending more than $1 million in hopes of an upset in a district that leans heavily toward the GOP. Mitt Romney carried it by 18 percentage points last fall, and no Democrat has won it since 1978.

In the poll, Sanford was picking up 10% of those who identified themselves as Democrats (South Carolina does not have party registration) and 76% of self-identified Republicans.  Colbert Busch was getting the support of 17% of Republicans and was favored by independents, with 50% to Sanford's 38%.

Sanford, badly outspent in the campaign, was abandoned by the national Republican Party after allegations surfaced last month that he had trespassed at his ex-wife's home, in violation of their 2010 divorce agreement.

In an effort to shift the focus of the race and appeal to conservative swing voters, Sanford has made an aggressive effort to link Colbert Busch to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California.  The new poll showed that voters in the district have a decidedly negative view of the liberal Californian, with 61% disapproving of her and only 24% approving.

A slight plurality of district voters (47%) regards Colbert Busch's positions on issues as liberal, while 43% says that, ideologically, she is "about right."  After Sanford's attack ads attempted to tie her to labor unions and Pelosi, the Democratic candidate's favorability rating dropped significantly, according to PPP.  In its earlier poll, two weeks ago, she had a net positive rating of 25 percentage points.  In the final poll, voters viewed her positively by a much narrower margin, just 6 percentage points (50% positive to 44% negative).

Sanford, however, continues to be viewed negatively.  A majority of those surveyed (54%) said they had an unfavorable opinion of the ex-governor, while 43% viewed him favorably.

African American voters, who represent almost one-fifth of the electorate (and 13% of the poll sample), favored the Democrat (76%), though a significant 19% said they supported Sanford.

“The special election in South Carolina couldn’t be much closer,” PPP president Dean Debnam said in a statement. “At this point, it’s just a question of whether voters are more put off by Mark Sanford or the Democrats in Washington.”

The survey of 1,239 likely voters, conducted Saturday and Sunday, had a margin of error of 2.8 percentage points in either direction.

paul.west@latimes.com

Twitter:  @paulwestdc

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