How Does South Carolina Work Its GOP Crystal Ball?

Jan 20, 2012

Saturday's South Carolina Republican primary may be the last good chance for Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's challengers to stop his march to the nomination. Every election year since 1980, the winner of South Carolina's Republican primary has gone on to win the nomination.

The state's Republicans do seem to have an unerring ability to pick the eventual Republican nominee, and one reason is pretty simple. South Carolina is a red state — a deep dyed red state — with more Republican voters than Iowa and New Hampshire combined. By definition, it's more representative of Republican preferences than the other early primary states.

"We've got Iowa, New Hampshire and Florida, all voted for Barack Obama in 2008," says Dave Woodard, a Clemson University professor and former Republican consultant. "South Carolina hasn't voted for a Democrat since 1976. We're a red state, we're a base Southern state, we're more in the base, really, under the bell curve, of what mainline Republicans are than some of those, shall we say, 'different' states."

South Carolina Republicans don't have an activist culture or as many single-issue voters as those "different" states. That's one reason moderate Republicans have done well there, despite the state's large number of conservative and evangelical voters.

South Carolina Republicans have a history of not only picking the eventual winner but also of choosing the candidate who came in second nationally the last time. Think John McCain or George H.W. Bush or Bob Dole — or maybe Romney, who lost the GOP nomination to Sen. McCain in 2008.

"Republicans generally, and Southerners specifically, are hierarchical," Republican strategist Ed Rogers says. "We appreciate someone coming up through the ranks. I worked for a long time for [one-time Republican National Committee chair] Lee Atwater. South Carolina, for all its reputation for rough politics, has actually showed a lot of maturity, and a lot of seriousness in who they end up electing."

McCain's victory in South Carolina in 2008 is a model Romney would like to follow. McCain won with 33 percent of the vote because former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee split the conservative vote. The same dynamic could still work for Romney this year, says South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint.

"What happens a lot, and it happened in the last presidential primary, could happen here, is that conservatives divide their vote among a number of conservative candidates, and sometimes the more moderate establishment candidate wins. That's not altogether bad," DeMint says.

Bad or good, the split vote is why moderate, establishment Republicans, like Romney, have in the past been able to win this deep red state with so many populists and religious conservatives.

But this year might be different, if conservatives in South Carolina can finally unite behind one candidate. Texas Gov. Rick Perry dropped out of the race Thursday and endorsed former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has been surging in the polls.

But former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul are still in the race, competing with Gingrich for the same pool of conservative voters.

South Carolina's Republicans pride themselves on picking a winner every time. This year, we'll find out if that historical pattern is a predictor or merely a precedent.

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