Mike Espy and Cindy Hyde-Smith are viewed as the most likely pair to advance to a runoff in the special election that also features state Sen. Chris McDaniel of Ellisville and Tobey Bartee of Gautier.

If African Americans outperform their turnout in Mississippi like they did last year in Alabama when Democrat Doug Jones recorded a stunning upset in a Senate special election, Democrat Mike Espy will need only 22 percent of white voters to win the Senate special election here.

In the December Alabama special election, African Americans accounted for more than 29 percent of the electorate even though they make up less than 27 percent of the total population. Democrats in Mississippi would welcome a similar over performance this November as they try to elect two U.S. senators.

The only problem with that possible statistical path to victory developed by the Espy campaign is that in 2012 Barack Obama garnered the support of only 10 percent of white Mississippi voters – the lowest percentage in the nation, according to exit polling.

U.S. Senate Republican candidate Chris McDaniel speaks to media after speaking during the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss. Thursday, August 2, 2018.

Getting near that 22 percent threshold could prove problematic for Espy, who in 1986 became Mississippi’s first black U.S. House member since the 1800s. He is vying this year in the Senate special election to replace Thad Cochran who stepped down in March because of poor health. Cindy Hyde-Smith, a Republican former commissioner of agriculture and commerce, was appointed by Gov. Phil Bryant to fill the vacant seat in the interim and is running in the special election. Republican state Sen. Chris McDaniel of Ellisville, who narrowly lost to Cochran in 2014, and Tobey Bartee of Gautier, also are vying in the special election.

If no candidate garners a majority vote in the Nov. 6 special election, the top two vote-getters will advance to a Nov. 27 runoff.

U.S. Senate Democratic candidate David Baria delivers his political speech during the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss. Thursday, August 2, 2018.

The nationally known Cook Political Report places the special election in the “likely” Republican category. Mississippi’s regularly scheduled Senate race, where state Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, is challenging Republican incumbent Roger Wicker of Tupelo, is rated in the “solid” Republican category.

National political pundits seldom cite the Mississippi contests, not even the special election, as a possible pickup for Democrats as they battle this November to regain the Senate.

U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker speaks during the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss. Thursday, August 2, 2018.

Yet, Espy, the former Secretary of Agriculture in the Clinton administration, cites favorable polling data as he attempts to convince Democratic donors of the viability of his candidacy.

Some polls have shown Espy defeating Hyde-Smith in a head-to-head matchup. Others have shown the complete opposite result. The polls, though, generally have depicted that Espy would perform better against the Tea Party favorite McDaniel than against Hyde-Smith. Espy and Hyde-Smith are viewed as the most likely pair to advance to a runoff.

The argument could be made that the two Senate elections in Mississippi might be more difficult to poll than most.

The key to accurate polling is to determine the demographic makeup of the turnout in any particular election. If the actual African American turnout, for instance, is higher or lower than the pollster assumes, it could skew the results of the poll.

Conor Dowling, a political scientist at the University of Mississippi, said it is possible that “a concerted effort to mobilize voters, including African Americans voters” could have an impact on an election.

He said good pollsters try to take such efforts into account when surveying voters.

“It’s important for polls to be as accurate as possible but this is increasingly a difficult task,” Dowling said. “Pollsters attempt to account for attempts to drive up turnout by asking people not just who they intend to vote for, but also some combination of (1) how likely they are to vote and (2) how enthusiastic they are about voting. The combination of those two items can allow pollsters to attempt to observe whether there appear to be any differences in enthusiasm/likelihood of voting between, say, people who indicate they intend to vote for Espy or Baria and Hyde-Smith or McDaniel or Wicker.”

State Rep. Bryant Clark, D-Pickens, whose father was the first African American legislator in the modern era, believes the black turnout in November might be much higher than expected.

“I think with some of the things going on with President Trump, with the dislike of him in the African American community, I think it will increase turnout,” Clark said recently.

In addition, Espy could be the most viable African American candidate to run statewide. Going back to the 1990s, based on his ability to connect with white farmers in his Delta House district, he was viewed as a viable statewide candidate.

“I can only speak for my area – the Delta – Mike Espy is a household name there,” Clark said. “If he can generate similar enthusiasm in other areas – like the Gulf Coast and northeast Mississippi – it could help Democrats in the special election and the regular election.”

Austin Barbour of Jackson, a Republican political strategist who has worked on campaigns on both the state and national levels, said he believes not only African American turnout, but overall turnout will be up this November. He said the popularity of the president among Republican voters will drive up turnout. Barbour said there is even a possibility that President Donald Trump will hold rallies in Mississippi for Hyde-Smith and Wicker.

Plus, he said Espy could face the additional disadvantage of a runoff three weeks after the general election where party control of the Senate could be on the line. If that is the case, the Republican effort in Mississippi would be intensified.

“If Mike Espy wants to win, he needs Republicans to be asleep,” Barbour said. “The turnout won’t be like it was in 2014.”

In 2014, a mid-term election like 2018, where Cochran handily defeated former U.S. Rep. Travis Childers of Booneville, 631,858 votes were cast – 653,726 less than were cast in 2012 when Republican Mitt Romney defeated Obama in Mississippi.

In that election, Obama won 43.8 percent or 582,949 votes – winning minority votes by a margin greater than that of Mitt Romney’s estimated 90 percent support among white Mississippians.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton won 485,131 or 40.1 percent of Mississippi voters in the race against Trump.

The performances of the Democrats – Obama and Clinton – do not bode well for Espy and Baria – the Democrats running this November in Mississippi’s two Senate elections.

But what if, as Clark predicted, African American turnout is unusually high, closer to 2012 levels, while Republican voters, some of whom even in Trump-friendly Mississippi might not be enthused by him, vote at the standard mid-term election levels?

“I think the Republican turnout is going to be low…,” Clark said. “It does not have to be a perfect storm, but if we have just the right storm, Mississippi might surprise the rest of the country in November.”

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.