Although party primaries were first used to nominate state and local candidates in South Carolina in the 1880s, the first presidential primary in this state was held by the Republican Party in 1980. The candidates were Governor John Connally of Texas and Governor Ronald Reagan of California. In a contest that has become a part of South Carolina GOP folklore; a Congressman from Greenville (Carroll Campbell) and a wet-behind-the-ears political consultant (Lee Atwater) took on the entire Republican establishment on behalf of Ronald Reagan and won convincingly. It was a key victory for Reagan who had to get the only southern candidate out of the race early so that he could win a series of big victories in the south. From that victory, Reagan went on to win the nomination and defeat the Democratic incumbent, President Jimmy Carter.
South Carolina Republicans have used primaries in contested nominations since. In all of these primaries save one, the winner here has gone on to be their nominee, with the exception of 2012, when Newt Gingrich won in South Carolina and Mitt Romney became the eventual nominee.
South Carolina Democrats first used a primary in the 1992 presidential nominating process, when Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas won, went on to win the nomination, and was elected president. The Democratic primary winner has gone on to be the nominee every year since, except when Senator John Edwards, from neighboring North Carolina, won in 2004 but lost the nomination to Senator John Kerry.
Iowa and New Hampshire have very few Hispanics or African Americans, even among Democratic voters. Leading up to the 2008 nomination cycle, the DNC actually voted on which states would follow Iowa and New Hampshire with the purpose of providing African Americans and Hispanics a greater voice in the nomination. In a vote between Arizona and Nevada, Nevada was selected to be an early state with a significant Hispanic population. The DNC selected South Carolina over Alabama to involve more African Americans in the early stages of the nominating process.
Republicans came to the same timing decisions but perhaps in a less precise and orderly fashion. At this juncture in the evolution of the delegate selection process in both parties, it seems that we are likely to have this sequence and timing of states for years to come.
Having small states early in the process makes it possible for “retail candidates” to run and be competitive. If little known candidates with small budgets and limited organizations had to run first in New York or Florida or Texas, they would not be competitive with wholesale candidates, who have wide name recognition, lots of money, elaborate organizations, and the capacity to run large-scale advertising campaigns.
In the South Carolina Republican Party, diverse characteristics of the voting population are significant. Even though their electorate is almost entirely white, divisions still exist; some are rural or suburban, some are religious fundamentalists, and there are even differences among Republican voters on social issues such as LGBT rights and abortion. Within the state’s Republican Party, ideological, policy, and regional issues are all important and can be quite divisive.
In the South Carolina Democratic Party, more than fifty percent of the presidential primary vote is African American. This made it possible for then-Senator Barack Obama to win decisively in 2008, after he had won Iowa and lost New Hampshire. This huge win helped propel his campaign to the nomination later that year.
This brings us to the South Carolina primaries, which will happen this Saturday for the Republicans and next Saturday for the Democrats. Whites are a distinct minority of the total Democratic primary vote in South Carolina. They are the majority of the entire state’s population by a margin of more than two to one, and a majority of votes in Republican primaries by a huge margin—ten to one if not more. White voters in Republican primaries are not a monolithic group, however. They tend to be almost as diverse as whites in the whole population.
White Democrats in presidential primaries are a relatively small group. They include people of diverse backgrounds. Many are white working class people who live in sparsely populated counties and in down scale communities in the cities and towns.
Collectively, whites constitute approximately 30 percent of the total Democratic vote in a general election and 40-45 percent in a contested presidential primary. Ideologically, these tend to be moderates and moderate liberals. There is, however, a vocal and active portion of white Democrats who are “progressive.” By themselves they have little effect on voting totals, but they are likely to provide Senator Sanders with a contingent that could be the basis of a better than expected showing in South Carolina on February 27.
In recent days, the Clinton campaign in its advertising and organizational operations has turned distinctly toward African Americans, committing little attention to the white community except for fundraising. She has widespread support among African-Americans. She also has the vast majority of the white Democratic establishment. Her lead is seemingly insurmountable, although many of her supporters lack enthusiasm and seem to be for her because there is no viable alternative. Nonetheless, Secretary Hillary Clinton is the odds on favorite. But Senator Sanders has supporters, though a minority, who are energized and are working harder than those supporting Secretary Clinton. This is probably not enough for him to win, but the margin will likely be much closer than the current 20 points.
Historically, the South Carolina Republican Party has been quite conservative. It is distinctly white. Black voters are rarely if ever a factor in calculating strategy, tactics or outcomes in Republican primaries or general elections. While seventy plus percent of white voters are Republican, within this substantial majority there is substantial variation.
There is still an Establishment, but it is not as pervasive as it was in the days when the Republican South Carolina primary got nicknamed “the firewall.” It is difficult to calculate how much of a presidential primary’s vote be responsive to the influence of the Establishment. But there is still the question of who they will vote for—Bush or Kasich, or Rubio. These people are financially well off and conservative, but not Cruz conservative.
There is a considerable group of very conservative/religious Republican voters—twenty percent or more. Most of these folks are lower middle or working class people with limited (high school, maybe some technical school) education. Many are fundamentalist/evangelical Christians who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible and transfer these religious beliefs to modern day politics, economics, and social convictions. Overwhelmingly they are the Cruz wing of the party.
Then there is a younger set of Republicans who differ from their older counterparts, particularly on social issues. It is difficult to estimate just how many of these millennials there are, but their number is growing. They tend to be more moderate in their social and economic views than their older counterparts, but still conservative. These more moderate millennials are Senator Rubio’s voters, unless they are joined by a substantial contingent of the Establishment, they will hardly be a powerful enough force to give him a victory in the SC primary. Add to that the real likelihood that establishment voters will split among Rubio, Bush and Kasich, and Rubio’s challenge increases.
Then there are fifteen or twenty percent of Republicans who don’t fit into any of these categories. They are generally speaking quite conservative, but they don’t fit into a clearly defined economic or social group; they sometimes change positions and occasionally vote for Democrats. If any one of the candidates could tap into this group, he could win South Carolina.
Then there is Governor Nikki Haley, who is tremendously popular among her fellow Republicans and the population generally. She has a fuzzy ideological image. Her personal history has been conservative in the frame of the Establishment or even the Tea Party. She has softened her image a bit by her handling of the murder of nine people in Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, and the subsequent removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state capitol. Her endorsement of Senator Marco Rubio could have a tremendous impact on both his candidacy and his ability to consolidate support among some of the groups mentioned above.
What about Donald Trump? It is difficult to account for his popularity in South Carolina or any other state. In national polls, as in South Carolina, he pulls voters from all of the groups described above, the Establishment as well as very conservative voters, younger voters, and particularly the fifteen or twenty percent who do not fit into any other group. On the whole, Trump’s supporters in South Carolina are no different from those in other states. They are attracted to him because he appeals to their frustration and anger and a sense of being left behind in the race for the good life. They span the entire socio-economic spectrum but most come from the under-educated working class. They currently dominate Republican primaries and will do so on February 20, because the opposition is so fragmented, among other reasons. It is unlikely that those opposed to Trump will settle on a single candidate until after the South Carolina primary, though Governor Haley’s endorsement of Rubio may be the move that cuts into the Trump coalition. Donald Trump’s strength is not his ideology, his positions on issues, or other substantive factors. It is his style—angry, absolutist, confident, someone who will have your back when no one else will.
Politics is the province of the uncertain. That is why so many people are enthralled by the process.