USA 2012: South Carolina 2012

The race for the Republican nomination for this year’s American presidential election continued on January 21 with the “first in the South” primary in South Carolina. This is the third contest following the Iowa caucuses on January 3 and the NH primary on January 10. Rick Santorum ended up being certified as the winner in Iowa by a mere 34 votes after originally trailing Romney by 8 votes on election night. Mitt Romney won New Hampshire by a decisive margin, taking 39.3% of the vote in his ‘firewall’ state.

Rick Santorum’s delayed victory in Iowa (on January 19) did not generate much buzz so long after the actual caucus, so the record going into South Carolina was 2 wins and no loses for Romney. For Mitt Romney, South Carolina was a crucial state, almost a must-win for him. If he could score a knock-out blow in a conservative Southern state, it would if not speed up Romney’s potential nomination but could seal the deal for him. On top of that, South Carolina has picked the eventual Republican nominee in all contests since 1980, meaning that it is much more decisive than Iowa or New Hampshire who have tended to either choose insurgent/rebel candidates or just picked the “wrong guy”. In 2000, Governor Bush’s decisive win over John McCain pretty much ended the race for McCain while in 2008, John McCain’s victory over Southern evangelical Mike Huckabee did not end the race but it did give McCain major momentum going into Florida and Super Tuesday. Romney understood this, as did his three remaining rivals: Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul. Gingrich emerged as Romney’s main rival.

The race was bloody and a real roller-coaster. Gingrich’s original line of attack against Romney was Romney’s role in Bain Capital, but that attack pretty much backfired on Gingrich. As late as Monday-Tuesday, Romney had started pulling away from Gingrich and it seemed as if he would win the state pretty easily. But Romney did very poorly in a debate on Monday January 16 and stumbled further in a heated debate on January 19. In the final debate, Romney’s campaign was dealt a serious blow as he equivocated over his tax records (which he has not yet released, unlike Gingrich). When asked by CNN’s John King in the debate if Romney would follow in his father’s footsteps and release his tax records, Romney answered with a funny yet pretty strategically horrible “maybe”.

Gingrich could have been hurt with his conservative base by an ABC news interview with his second wife who claimed that he had asked her for an “open marriage” and that topic became the first subject of discussion in the CNN debate on January 19. But Gingrich, knowing the Republican electorate’s natural propensity to view the media as liberal and constantly seeking to destroy Republicans, gave a skillfully crafted answer which conveyed the feelings of many Republicans towards the media, calling the story ridiculous and disgusting. It generated a surge of sympathy of sorts for Gingrich, perceived by the Republican electorate as the victim of the liberal media.

Two candidates dropped out of the race between NH and SC. Jon Huntsman withdrew and endorsed Romney, realizing that after 17% in NH he had nowhere to go, especially not in a conservative state like South Carolina. Rick Perry, the biggest flop of this campaign, dropped out and endorsed Gingrich, realizing that his ‘last stand’ in SC was quite futile and that he no longer had a place in the campaign. Perry, a Southern evangelical, endorsing Gingrich (despite the “open marriage” moral issue) gave Gingrich a small momentum boost. On January 18, the race turned around as a whole string of polls showing Gingrich ahead came out. The January 19 debate only sped up Gingrich’s train.

Results and Conclusions

Newt Gingrich 40.41%
Mitt Romney 27.84%
Rick Santorum 16.98%
Ron Paul 12.99%
Herman Cain 1.05%
Rick Perry 0.41%
Others 0.31%

Results of the SC primary (source: uselectionatlas)

Newt Gingrich scored a landslide victory in South Carolina. After Iowa and New Hampshire, we had all presumed that Romney was becoming quite unstoppable and that he would be the likely nominee. However, Gingrich blowing Romney out of the water in Romney throws the race wide open. Gingrich’s victory in South Carolina is a mix of a number of things: late momentum for him following the ‘media attacks’ and Perry’s endorsement, negative coverage of Romney’s campaign following the tax records flop, his conservative stand in a conservative state against a moderate and a “Southern advantage” for Gingrich which should not be forgotten.

South Carolina is a conservative state and Evangelicals are a major voting bloc in the GOP primaries, but unlike, say, Alabama, it isn’t quite unwinnable for non-Southern or more moderate candidates. It backed John McCain over Mike Huckabee, despite McCain’s less-than-perfect conservative credentials and Huckabee’s standing as the sole Southern evangelical candidate in the race. Which is to say that despite Romney’s 15% in SC in 2008, Romney could have won South Carolina. Especially after his early momentum, Romney at one point looked unstoppable. But what seems to have happened is that Romney turned into the ‘Flavour of the Month’ like Bachmann, Perry, Cain and Gingrich before him. He experienced a brief surge, all to have it crumble as he faced intensive media scrutiny and became the top target of attacks from the not-Romneys. The tax records flop did hurt him a lot, but Republicans now seem uncomfortable a bit with Romney in part because of his conservative credentials but also his standing as a very wealthy venture capitalist. There is also the matter that Romney comes out as fake and plastic under scrutiny, answering questions like a robot.

Romney was blown out of the water in South Carolina. The next contest, which is equally as decisive, will be Florida on January 31. In 2008, McCain had defeated Romney 36-31 in Florida. Unlike South Carolina, Florida isn’t “heartland Dixie” outside the Panhandle, which means that Gingrich’s southern conservative advantage is less important. At the same time, at the height of his surge in late November-early December, Gingrich polled up to 47% in Florida, which means that he definitely has a shot at winning. In the last polls, Romney had a double-digit lead in Florida, but SC will give Gingrich momentum going into Florida meaning that at this point it probably starts out as a tossup. What seems increasingly important are the debates (January 23 and 26). In SC, they derailed Romney’s momentum and exit polls showed that for 65% of voters, debates were important and for 88% of voters, debates were a factor in their vote. Romney has not performed very well in debates, and in South Carolina he performed about as well as Rick Perry. If he can turn that around in Florida, he stands a chance, but if Gingrich can continue his destruction of Romney in Florida’s debates then it will be hard for Romney to fight back.

Following Florida, the next contests are a string of caucuses in Nevada (Feb 4), Colorado, Minnesota (Feb 7) and Maine (Feb 11) plus a beauty pageant primary in Missouri on February 7 where no delegates are distributed and Gingrich isn’t on the ballot there. Besides Missouri, Romney had won all those contests in 2008, a year in which Romney’s strength was caucuses. Caucuses tend to skew heavily conservative (Nevada had the second most conservative GOP electorate in 2008, behind Iowa), and Romney had an edge in 2008 as the ‘conservative’ candidate against Romney but in 2012 it is doubtful that Romney will have a similar advantage. Ron Paul can be expected to perform very strongly in all those caucus states, and it is not impossible that he runs away with one or two of those states. If Gingrich can hold on throughout this tougher spell, March will be a largely “Southern” month in which Gingrich should do well. But Gingrich needs to avoid becoming a second Mike Huckabee, an overrated sectional candidate. He has shown that in SC, but he must show it in Florida.

Rick Santorum won third place with 17%, which is impressive considering that Santorum had no organization in SC and still has little money to compete, but it seems as if South Carolina has halted what was left of Santorum’s post-Iowa momentum. He can still perform well, but it is doubtful he can win any other upcoming contests. He lacks the organization and money which he had in Iowa but which he doesn’t really have elsewhere. He has signaled that he remains in the race, claiming that it’s a dead heat after the 1-1-1 tie in state wins, but really if Santorum’s point is to win (unlike Ron Paul, who has money and a solid base and can just pile up delegates in case of a brokered convention), then he has little chance to do so. Rick Santorum is a strong candidate for South Carolina (despite being a Pennsylvania Catholic) and his social conservative record is the cleanest of all candidates, but it seems as if his main weakness is that he’s not a Southerner. In Iowa, he had very much under-performed Huckabee in those southern Iowa counties which are the most culturally Southern: those counties have preferred Southerners like John Edwards (in 2004 and 2008 Democratic caucuses) and Rick Perry this year.

For Ron Paul, 13% in South Carolina is a very good showing. South Carolina, like the bulk of the Confederacy, is not fertile ground for Ron Paul whose traditional base is dependent on a big presence of college kids or libertarian/moderate Republicans in places like Montana. Dixie has none of those, and Paul had won only 3.6% in SC in 2008. This shows that he has developed a much wider appeal to conservative Republicans or Republicans worried a lot about the deficit. Paul seems to be skipping Iowa, but as mentioned above, the caucus states in February should be favourable to Paul who has a motivated base and an increasingly conservative electorate. Paul probably won’t drop out until the convention, given that he has nothing to lose by staying in and nothing to gain from getting out. In fact, if the convention is a brokered convention (it probably won’t be), he could have a key role at the negotiating table if he piles up many delegates.

Herman Cain, everybody’s favourite candidate, did so “well” despite dropping out because he allowed his ballot slot to be used by comedian Stephen Colbert for purposes of Colbert’s attempt to throw himself into these primaries. Colbert and Cain held a large rally together in South Carolina, but it was mostly filled with liberals and out-of-state college kids.

Exit Poll Data

The exit polls provide interesting data to reflect on. Gingrich won all age groups save for the 18-29 cohort which went for Paul, and performed strongest with the older voters (65+, he took 47% of their vote) as did Romney (36%). For Romney, income remains one of the best predictors – save for a weird 29% showing for Romney with the poorest voters (under $30k), the wealthier you are the more likely you are to back Romney: he won the highest earners ($200k+) with 47% against 32% for Gingrich.

Republicans were 71% of the electorate, and they backed Gingrich 45-28 over Romney, but independents (25%) also supported him, though by a narrower 31-25-23 margin over Romney and Paul. Predictably, voters were quite conservative: 68% were conservatives (-1 from 2008) and 32% were moderates or liberals. Romney won moderates with 34% against 31% for Gingrich, while conservatives backed him 45-24 over Mitt. With those 36% who were very conservative, Gingrich won 48%. Evangelical Christians were 65% of the electorate, and those voters gave Gingrich 44% against 22% for Romney and 21% for Santorum.

The economy was the most important issue for 63% of voters, and Gingrich won those voters with 40% against 32% for Romney. Paul performed best (19%) with those 22% who cited the budget deficit as the most important issue, but Gingrich clearly dominated those voters with 45% against 23% for Romney. Predictably, Santorum rocked the field (51%) for those 8% who thought abortion was the most important issue. In what I think should ring alarm bells for Romney, he was clearly beaten by Gingrich (51-37) among those voters – 45% of the electorate – who see a candidate’s ability to defeat Obama as the most important quality. Romney’s ability to defeat Obama had been one of his biggest advantages thus far, so if he starts losing that kind of voter, it should ring alarm bells for Mitt.

On a final note, for those 65% who felt that debates were important in their vote, Gingrich was the preferred candidate with 50% against 23% for Romney. Romney, however, easily won those who felt debates were not important and won that small minority who said the debates were not even a factor in their vote by a big margin. Clearly, the debates are the main culprit in derailing Romney’s momentum.

Geographical Analysis

Politically, South Carolina is divided in three main regions: Upstate (Piedmont/Greater Appalachians), the Midlands (including the PeeDee) and the Low Country (Coastal Plains and Coastal Region). The Upstate, centered around the Evangelical epicentres of Greenville-Spartanburg (Bob Jones University is in Greenville) is a poor, deeply religious, largely white and historically textile-driven region. It has always tended to resist the power of the downstate plantations and Charleston elite, and has a very religious populist-conservative side to it. In 2008, it backed Mike Huckabee, whose strength also extended into the PeeDee region which, to a lesser extent, is also very religious and historically driven by the textile industry. Populist, conservative or evangelical candidates all play very well in this region, but they are not must-wins for winners as McCain showed.

Races are decided in the more populated Midlands and Low Country, which include the state capital and college town of Columbia, the economic centre of Charleston, the wealthy resort of Hilton Head and the tourist-retiree destination of Myrtle Beach. Historically, these regions in the Southern Black Belt were at the core of South Carolina’s plantation economy (and they retain a large black population) and exerted much of the political power. They are rather conservative (though the cities are more moderate), but more or less conservative establishment candidates usually tend to do best in the Black Belt counties while Columbia, Charleston and Hilton Head usually back moderates. At any rate, races are decided in these two regions. McCain’s victory was won there in 2008, while in 2000 Bush was able to defeat McCain by winning Upstate religious conservatives and the Midlands’ establishment conservatives (McCain won, basically, the four purely coastal counties).

Romney performed best in the Low Country, but his problem was that he ended up having limited demographic appeal. He could have won the establishment conservatives, and if he had done so he could have done without the religious conservatives of the Upstate where he was never competitive to begin with. However, Gingrich ended up having wider demographic appeal and built a Bush-like coalition of Upstate and Midlands conservatives while remaining very competitive even with the most moderate conservatives of the Low Country.

The map is pretty brutal to Romney. He won only Charleston, Richland and Beaufort Counties. Charleston and Columbia (Richland County) are the two largest cities in the state and Republicans there are largely affluent, white and more moderate. Beaufort County is Hilton Head, a very affluent resort community which is natural Romney territory. It was where he had done best in 2008, and where he did best this year with 43% of the vote. Romney was also a bit more competitive in Columbia’s suburbs, including affluent but more conservative Lexington County, and coastal Georgetown County which is affluent and old.

Gingrich won the rest of the state, by varying margins. He really did best in the Black Belt and the PeeDee (but ‘turnout’ is, of course, very low in the Black Belt), and won the Upstate. Interestingly, however, he actually did better in the Midlands/PeeDee than Upstate. This is largely because Rick Santorum’s more populist campaign (he has shown himself surprisingly ‘left-wing’ on economic issues compared to the rest of the field) resonated best with poorer populist whites. Santorum won 24% in York County, which is half Charlotte suburbia and half poorer textile country, and also won 23% in Lancaster County, 21.4% in Cherokee County and 20.7% in Spartanburg County. Ron Paul also performed best Upstate, peaking at 22% in Abbeville County, which seems fairly unremarkable besides being John C. Calhoun’s birthplace. He also did well in Greenville-Spartanburg, the rural Upstate and Pickens County (an Upstate county including the college town of Clemson). ‘Fake’ Herman Cain, predictably, did best in Columbia and Charleston (2.3%).

What should worry Romney going into Florida is his showing in Horry County (Myrtle Beach). McCain had won Horry County in 2000 and Romney had done fairly well there in 2008, so it was important for Romney to do well there. The kind of older, transplanted white retiree demographic which we find around Myrtle Beach is similar to the ones we find in parts of Florida, especially on the Gulf coast of the state (Cape Coral etc). Gingrich won Horry with 45.7% against 30% for Romney – predictably Santorum and Paul didn’t play well there. That Romney won’t do well in the Florida Panhandle is already well known, but if he wants to win Florida (he does), then he does need to perform better with the older age groups. He has a base there already, but in SC it was not large enough.

A lot of us (those who like primaries because they make for fun maps) had concluded not so long ago that the contest was over and that Romney would score a 45-50 state sweep. Less than a week later, the race is back to stage one and remains wide open. Romney’s nomination is no longer a quasi-certainty and the race is unlikely to end in Florida. It has been a crazy contest, and hopefully it remains just as crazy and fascinating!

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Posted on January 22, 2012, in Primaries, leadership contests or internal party votes, South Carolina, U.S.A.. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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