Disgraced former Gov. Mark Sanford came out ahead in the South Carolina primary Tuesday night, and is the favorite to win the run-off for the nomination and the special election for the seat. But just a few years ago, Sanford was at a low point, giving a tearful press conference and addressing his hike on the “Appalachian Trail,” which turned out to be a cover for an affair.
So what is it about Sanford that made him so forgivable, while politicians like Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer have not been?
One theory is that in New York, the tabloid culture is so pervasive and persistent that it made it much harder for Spitzer and Weiner to survive after their scandals broke, and to rehabilitate themselves for a potential comeback.
Risa Heller, a New York political consultant, who has worked for Gov. David Paterson and Sen. Chuck Schumer, said that the “media landscape” in New York City is dominated by two tabloids (the New York Post and the New York Daily News), so “New York is a different kind of place with different kind of media, and it’s just not like there anywhere else.”
“Newspapers put your face on the covers and call you a clown, a sex addict,” Heller said, and you’ve got “very hungry, competitive reporters” who will be aggressive about these kinds of stories.
Another New York Democratic operative agreed, telling Salon that there is a “tabloid media culture in New York that feeds on this, that will extend and fan and give tremendous lift to stories like this.” He continued that Spitzer and Weiner were already being targeted by the New York tabloids before their scandals broke: “It makes it more difficult politically, it makes it more difficult for the family.” He also noted that in both cases, neither politician had real allies, Weiner repeatedly lied about the allegations, and Spitzer had made his clean record a big part of his public image when he was the attorney general, so his law-breaking became “insurmountable.” Sanford, on the other hand, took responsibility for his affair.
Chip Felkel, a political strategist based in Greenville, S.C., chalked it all up to Sanford’s money and name recognition. “It was a name ID situation. That’s the only district in the state where a guy with his history could even hope to run successfully. You had a very crowded field of unknowns, plus some knowns, but he split up the vote a good bit,” he told Salon.
Felkel added: “In the South where people certainly believe in forgiveness, his ads were compelling in terms of him getting a second chance. The guy was extremely consistent on his views of less government, so his message on policy did not change.” Felkel also noted that the district is more fiscally conservative than socially conservative, so the voters were less likely to focus on the scandal.
Sanford, who wound up with 37 percent of the vote on Tuesday night, must face a runoff challenger on April 2. But he is still the front-runner for the primary, as well as the general, against Elizabeth Colbert-Busch. “I think he’s still the favorite, with or without Stephen Colbert’s help,” Felkel said.