One From the Vault: Is Stephen Colbert the Dark Horse S.C. Senate Candidate?

The comedian could shake up the Palmetto State primary, The Atlantic reported five years ago. Why not the Senate?

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With Jim DeMint's surprise announcement Thursday that he's leaving the U.S. Senate to lead the Heritage Foundation, there's a roaring rumor mill about who South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley might appoint to fill his seat. The state has a strong bench of Republican politicians, perhaps led by Rep. Tim Scott. But there's one name that could truly shake up the race: Stephen Colbert.

Like DeMint, he's a South Carolina native. Like DeMint, he has his own super PAC. And like DeMint, he espouses a strong conservative ethos. Former Atlantic senior editor Joshua Green considered the notion of a presidential run at some length way back in October 2007, after the comedian and TV host threatened to run in the Palmetto State's Republican and Democratic primaries.

For help, I turned to Professor Blease Graham of the University of South Carolina, and to Sam Wellborn, a graduate student at the school's Institute for Public Service and Policy Research, who shared survey data on the state's voters. Suffice it to say that Graham is not persuaded of Colbert's electoral reach in the Palmetto State. "If this were the high school operetta," he told me, "Colbert would be the amusement at intermission to keep the audience from straying in the second half."

Good sport that he is, Graham crunched the numbers anyway. About 2.4 million people voted in the last presidential election, only a fraction of whom will vote in the primaries. Graham estimated that about 600,000 will turn out for the Republican primary and about 350,000 for the Democratic primary. Colbert's focus is on younger voters. Graham made a back-of-the-envelope calculation that 260,000 people between the ages of 18 and 44 will vote in both primaries: 169,000 in the Republican primary and 91,000 in the Democratic primary. That's Colbert's target. But to guess how he might fare, it's necessary to examine a few more variables.

Colbert's viewers are assumed to be mostly liberals. So let's look first at the Democratic primary. It doesn't look great for Colbert. Roughly speaking, 70 percent of South Carolina voters are white, and about 30 percent are black. But most black voters are Democrats, and about half the state's Democratic primary electorate is black--not Colbert's audience. Another problem: old people. A consultant to one of the major presidential candidates (all of the consultants I interviewed watch "Colbert," all of them speculated about his prospects, and none of them would go on the record) pointed out that Democratic primary voters are seriously old--older, on average, than Republican primary voters and especially old in South Carolina. That's not Colbert's audience either. The same applies to gender. The Democratic primary electorate skews female, more so in South Carolina than elsewhere.

Colbert might fare better in the Republican primary. According to one presidential advisor, the South Carolina Republican electorate is "monolithically white, much more male than female, and younger" than the Democratic electorate--all good news for Colbert. As a rule of thumb, younger voters tend to be more liberal than older voters. But in South Carolina, younger voters are more conservative than their counterparts elsewhere. Factor in "Reaganiness," and things could really get interesting.

(Read the whole thing, obviously.)

So Colbert would have had a tough road in the primaries. But that was five years ago; the political landscape has shifted, and Colbert is more seasoned and better known. He's even participated in congressional hearings. And doesn't "Senator Stephen Colbert" have a nice ring?

Consider it, Governor Haley.

Presented by

David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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