COLUMBIA, S.C.—You can call it the make-or-break state. Or maybe, in honor of one recent winner there, the decider.

Ever since 1980, when South Carolina moved its Republican presidential primary toward the front of the party’s calendar, the state has never failed to pick the eventual GOP nominee. State Republicans say they expect nothing less this year—even if the putative front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, has signaled that he may downplay the state.
Since 1980, every contested GOP presidential race has followed the same pattern. One candidate wins the kickoff caucus in Iowa. Another claims the first primary in New Hampshire. Then one of those two victors captures South Carolina—and ultimately the nomination. Sometimes the Palmetto State anoints the New Hampshire winner (Ronald Reagan in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1988, and John McCain in 2008). Other times, it shines on the Iowa victor (Bob Dole in 1996, George W. Bush in 2000). But for the past three decades, it has always backed the eventual nominee.

South Carolina has achieved such a pivotal role partly because, as the first Southern primary state, it has functioned as the gateway to the region that underpins the modern Republican Electoral College map. But mostly it has predicted the GOP nominee so consistently because it reflects the breadth of the contemporary Republican electorate better than either Iowa or New Hampshire.

While Iowa tilts heavily toward evangelical Christians fixated on social issues and New Hampshire bends toward socially moderate small-government libertarians, South Carolina offers a mix of social, religious, and economic conservatives that is more representative of the party as a whole. In 2008, for instance, exit polls found that evangelical Christians were plentiful in Iowa (60 percent of voters) and rare in New Hampshire (23 percent), while the opposite was true for moderates (11 percent in Iowa and 34 percent in New Hampshire). Only South Carolina contained significant numbers of both, with an electorate that was 60 percent evangelical and 25 percent moderate (which, in the local context, probably reflects voters’ attitudes on social issues more than economic ones.)

“If you take all of the states where Republicans generally win nationally and combine their demographics, it probably would be fairly well represented in South Carolina,” said Richard Quinn, a longtime local GOP consultant. “It shows how well a candidate can do in the South; but at the same time, the state is a little more cosmopolitan than you realize. South Carolina is not nearly as hard right as its image.”

The state has several distinct regions that play to different candidates’ strengths. “You have this perfect mix of social conservative and fiscal conservative that coalesces in one location,” says outgoing state GOP Chairwoman Karen Floyd. The Upstate region, anchored by Greenville, is home to evangelical Bob Jones University as well as the state’s most conservative and intensely religious voters. The Low Country—coastal areas highlighted by Charleston and Hilton Head—has an electorate that is more moderate, managerial, and focused on economic issues. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee nearly swept the Upstate vote in 2008, while McCain’s strongest showing was along the coast. The tiebreaker typically comes down to the Midlands, or Columbia and its surroundings. McCain won that region, and thus the state and then the nomination.

Warren Tompkins, a well-respected local GOP consultant, cites another reason for South Carolina’s pivotal role: Candidates must also appeal to independent voters; a court ruling just last week kept the state’s primaries open to registered independents. This year, with government spending and other economic issues dominating the national debate, their influence could be greater than ever, perhaps even canceling out the early buzz that social conservatives, including former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., are generating with their frequent visits.

For 2012, early surveys and recent county straw polls show Huckabee leading. That would fit with another of South Carolina’s traditions: Dole won the state in 1996 and McCain in 2008 after both came in second previously. But Huckabee has yet to indicate that he’s running, although his national Huck PAC director, Hogan Gidley, is a former executive director of the state’s Republican Party.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has assembled what is probably the strongest early organization in the state. He has lined up support from Tompkins (who advised Romney last time) and communications consultant Jim Dyke in Charleston. The other Southern candidate in the race, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, has backing from former South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson.

But that kind of institutional support may matter less in the age of the tea party. Last year, tea party enthusiasm helped state Rep. Nikki Haley upset three opponents to win the GOP gubernatorial nomination and then the general election. Sen. Jim DeMint is a national tea party favorite, and his endorsement might be gold in the Republican primary. But although DeMint’s backing may influence the party’s conservative wing, McCain’s victory in 2008 shows that a relative moderate can still win in South Carolina—especially if the conservative vote is split.

Given McCain’s success last time, Romney’s apparent disinterest in South Carolina has perplexed local political observers. He hasn’t visited the state since before the 2010 midterms, and he pointedly omitted South Carolina (in favor of Florida, Nevada, and New Hampshire) when asked in a recent interview which states would likely prove decisive. The past isn’t always prologue, but if Romney slights South Caro­lina, he’s wagering that he can upend three decades of Republican tradition. That may be a much bigger gamble than his camp seems to believe today.

This article appeared in the Saturday, April 9, 2011 edition of National Journal.

Leave a Reply.