Do you remember who came in second place in the 2008 South Carolina Republican Presidential Primary?
Most people don’t, because second place in South Carolina is the first loser. It doesn’t matter how close the vote is—no candidate has ever become the nominee without winning in South Carolina. In 2008, John McCain won with 33% of the vote, and Mike Huckabee came in second with 30% .
There’s a reason why the South Carolina State Republican Party’s motto is “We Pick Presidents’: the Palmetto state is a microcosm of the national party. We have a saying that illustrates the cultural difference between the three regions of the state (which also applies to the factions within the national Republican party); in the Upstate, they ask you where you go to church; in the Midlands, they ask you what you do; and along the Coast, they ask you what you want to drink.
Social conservatives are concentrated in the Upstate, which includes the cities of Greenville and Spartanburg. The Upstate is also where the largest contingent of South Carolina’s Tea Party voters are concentrated. In the Midlands (which contains the capital city of Columbia), you’ll find your more mainstream, establishment Republican types. They focus more on fiscal issues, and these voters tend to gravitate toward the candidate that they feel has the most electability in the general election.
Along the coastal cities of Myrtle Beach (the Pee Dee area) and Charleston (also known as the Lowcountry), they are less interested in social issues. This area’s greatest industry is tourism, and this part of the state led the fight in repealing some of the more restrictive blue laws. You can now buy alcohol on Sundays in most counties, purchase alcoholic drinks by the glass (instead of the mini-bottle), buy lottery tickets, and you can even get a tattoo (tattoo parlors were illegal in SC until 2006).
Don’t make too much out of Governor Nikki Hayley’s endorsement of Mitt Romney. While candidates love getting endorsements from state officials and political leaders, it rarely causes South Carolina voters to switch their votes. Strom Thurmond was probably the most popular South Carolina politician ever, and he endorsed Texas Gov. John Connally in the 1980 Republican primary. Ronald Reagan went on to win the state primary with 55% of the vote.
So, what is the most important to South Carolina voters? Will they choose their nominee based on economic platform and job-creation record? Or will a candidate’s record social issues trump the economy as the most important characteristic for a candidate? I find it hard to imagine that social issues come anywhere close to the top 3 issues that matter most to primary voters–even among social conservatives. The unemployment rate in South Carolina is 9.9%.
South Carolina has suffered under the Obama Administration for the past three years. The National Labor Relations Board had sued to prevent Boeing from building an aircraft production facility in the state (and creating over 1000 new jobs) because South Carolina is a right-to-work state. The Department of Justice is suing to prevent South Carolina's new law that requires voters to present a picture identification card in order to vote as a discriminatory law, even though the state offer free ID cards at the DMV to anyone who requests them and, if needed, provides free transportation to the DMV.
Whatever they decide in my home state, it will reflect the mood of Republicans nationwide and set the tone for the remaining Republican primary campaign. I close with this bold prediction: whoever wins the primary will eventually become the Republican nominee.