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The Mississippi Carnival Ends Tuesday as Voters Choose Cochran Or McDaniel

The Mississippi Republican Senate primary has been through more twists and turns — an alleged nursing home break-inaccusations of lapsed memory — than an episode of “House of Cards.” On Tuesday, either long-time incumbent Thad Cochran or tea party upstart state Sen. Chris McDaniel will meet the end of the line in a runoff.

Cochran’s aiming to be elected to a seventh term, but his relatively moderate record is increasingly out of step with a changing Republican Party. A big advocate for pork-barrel projects, Cochran found that his status as a patriarch of the GOP in Mississippi was only worth 49.0 percent of the vote in the first round of the primary.

Meanwhile, McDaniel pulled out 49.5 percent of the vote in that round, despite lower name recognition. Endorsed by tea partyers Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum, and the Club for Growth, McDaniel ripped through Cochran’s advantage in establishment support by seizing on the anti-spending and anti-establishment mood of the Republican electorate.

McDaniel seems to have picked up momentum after his first-round victory. He has led in five of the seven runoff polls and trailed by only one point in the two surveys in which he was down. The Real Clear Politics average has McDaniel ahead 49 percent to Cochran’s 43 percent. The polls were accurate in the first round, but historically pollsters have had trouble in Mississippi’s Republican primaries and may be downplaying Cochran’s support in the second.

Cochran has been trying to attract voters who didn’t take part in the June 3 primary in an effort to boost his chances Tuesday. In Mississippi, any voter can cast a ballot in a runoff, so long as she didn’t vote in the Democratic primary earlier this month. NFL quarterback Brett Favre cut an ad for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce praising Cochran’s ability to bring home the bacon. And Cochran has made a concerted effort to reach out to African-Americans, who make up 37 percent of Mississippi’s population, although usually less than 5 percent of Republican primary voters.

In most other states, Cochran’s effort might seem odd. Why would Democratic-leaning voters want to choose the Republican candidate who hasn’t won less than 60 percent of the vote in any of his five previous re-election campaigns? Because the chances of a Democratic victory in the fall are slim, no matter whom Republicans nominate. Mississippi’s electorate is inelastic. As I have previously noted, 80 percent of white voters in the state are likely to vote Republican. And because whites make up the majority of voters, Democrats have a narrow path to victory.

Cochran is hoping that black voters recognize this and show up at the polls. If they do, it will be most obvious in Holmes County (to the north of the capital city of Jackson) and Claiborne and Jefferson counties (which are to the southwest). African-Americans makeup between 83 and 86 percent of the population in these three counties. Cochran only won 365, 161 and 121 votes in these areas, respectively, in the initial primary. A successful effort by Cochran would probably see his vote totals double, if not triple, there.

Indeed, in the June 3 primary, Cochran did best in the agricultural counties along the Mississippi Delta, which have a higher percentage of African-Americans than the state as a whole. This matched Cochran’s tendency to do better in areas that have relied on money from the federal government, such as Harrison County on the Gulf of Mexico and Lauderdale County in the east, both of which are anchored by military bases. Cochran also outperformed in his home county of Lafayette in the north and the more highly educated Hinds and Madison counties in the central-west part of the state.

McDaniel ran up his totals in two parts of the state. His home county of Jones in the southeast provided him a nearly 10,000 vote majority — by far the largest margin in any county. McDaniel regularly won more than 60 percent of the vote in the counties around Jones, and, as important, voters there turned out in large numbers in the first round. In Jones, for example, turnout was up 50 percent from the presidential primary in 2012. McDaniel also scored big in the swing county of DeSoto in the northwest.

The one county where both men need to perform strongly is Rankin, outside Jackson, which is home to the most Republican voters in the state. It has a much lower percentage of African-Americans than nearby Hinds County and much lower percentage of well-educated people than Madison County. Cochran won there by only 2 points in the first round. If McDaniel wins there in the runoff, Cochran will be in trouble.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.