South Carolina 1st District Poll: It’s All About Context

by Stuart Rothenberg April 4, 2013 · 4:46 PM EDT

The campaign of Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the Democratic nominee for the special election in South Carolina’s 1st District, released a poll Monday. As with all polls, context matters, so be careful before jumping to conclusions either way.

Conducted for the campaign by Lake Research Partners, the survey shows Colbert Busch leading in general election ballot tests against both Republicans in the runoff, 47 percent to 44 percent over former Gov. Mark Sanford and 48 percent to 39 percent against Curtis Bostic, a social conservative who served on the Charleston County council.

According to the press release, the poll showed Colbert Busch with “a 2-to-1 favorability rating at 48 percent and 24 percent …”

The release did not include name ID or favorability ratings for either of the Republicans, but it included plenty of campaign propaganda about how great Colbert Busch is and how she will be an “independent voice” for South Carolina.

For Democrats, the poll offers at least some reason for hope. After all, Colbert Busch’s favorable/unfavorable ratings are good, and it’s almost always better to be ahead rather than behind in a ballot test.

But there are also reasons for Democrats — and for Colbert Busch — to worry. Huge reasons.

Colbert Busch is leading Sanford, who was discredited by a personal scandal that made him a national laughing stock, by only 3 points? And she is sitting less than 50 percent in ballot tests against two Republicans with differing problems and before Republican campaign strategists have even landed a glove on her in paid TV advertising?

It’s also a little worrisome that the Lake Research polling memo and Colbert Busch campaign press release single out the candidate’s strong favorability rating (61 percent) in Charleston County. Why include only Colbert Busch’s favorability number in Charleston County, the most Democratic of the district’s larger counties? Why not also note her favorability numbers in Beaufort and Berkeley counties, two Republican counties that together have a larger population than Charleston?

I think we can all guess the answer to that question: The polling memo is little more than an attempt to generate momentum and dollars for Colbert Busch’s campaign, rather than a vehicle for shedding light on where the race stands and where it might go. So the campaign and the campaign pollster release only those numbers consistent with the memo’s purpose.

Colbert Busch’s campaign obviously hopes her lack of a voting record will make it difficult for Republicans to paint her as some kind of liberal Democrat. And it may.

But her good name ID ratings simply reflect the fact that Republicans haven’t yet defined her, and the district’s partisan bent — Barack Obama drew less than 43 percent in the district in his 2008 and 2012 presidential bids — means district voters, most of whom are either Republican or conservative, are likely to be receptive to GOP attacks on the Democratic nominee.

As I wrote in an early March column, this special election is worth watching, and I expect national Republicans to have to get involved to hold the seat. But Colbert Busch remains an underdog in a Republican-leaning district. The Lake Research poll and campaign press release don’t change any of that.