With the South Carolina primary coming up this Saturday, there’s no time like the present to give a brief outline on the role of the state in the Republican presidential nomination process, and how the candidates have positioned themselves leading up to the vote. This primary, the ‘first in the south’, has always been hugely important in the race to be the presidential nominee, and this year is shaping up to be no different.
According to the South Carolina Republican Party website, “South Carolina Presidential Preference Primaries have unique characteristics and demographics which are more reflective of the national electorate at large and therefore a much stronger indicator than any of the other earlier primaries or caucuses.”
The earlier primaries or caucuses alluded to above this year are of course Iowa and New Hampshire – which are smaller in population but which always have a huge effect on the race. The way that delegates are allotted is highly complicated (more on this to come), but the earliest primaries always cut down on the number of candidates that continue into the race. South Carolina is fiercely protective of their early primary and with good reason – it matters a great deal who wins the state.
The largest priority of the Republican Party is party unity: all elements of the Republican coalition seek to come to some kind of an agreement as to which candidate best represents the ideals and values of the party well before the convention. This is why South Carolina is so critical. To win there, candidates must appeal to a wide range of Republicans. Hollis Felkel from CNN puts it this way:
“Our voters are a much more diverse group than those in Iowa or New Hampshire. Yes, Christian conservatives dominate the GOP here, but victory in South Carolina means you have successfully appealed to a wide variety of Republican concerns. It means you have the support of fiscal conservatives (Coast and Upstate), social conservatives (Upstate and all around), transplanted retirees (Upstate and Coastal Low County), business owners (statewide), and veterans (Midlands and Coast).
In 2008, Mike Huckabee won in Iowa, easily garnering the votes of evangelical voters, but failed to unite Republicans in South Carolina enough to win there. John McCain did, and went on to face current President Barack Obama in the presidential election. Having the South Carolina primary occur so early in the race has been effective: every Republican candidate that has won the South Carolina primary since 1980 has gone on to win the nomination of the party.
This year however, South Carolina’s status as ‘the first in the south’ came at a cost. On December 27, 2011, the Republican National Committee announced it would penalize the state for holding its primary earlier than was originally scheduled. The winner of the primary will receive all of the state’s delegates at the upcoming convention, however this year the number will be reduced in half to 25 delegates from the usual 50.
What’s most interesting about this however is the fact that the Florida Republican Party is more to blame than South Carolina. Florida Republicans moved their primary date up, forcing South Carolina to move its date up (and hold the election on a Saturday which is not the norm) to ensure it continued to hold its title as the ‘first in the south’. Primary season is always interesting!
This demonstrates how little uniformity there is in state primary or caucus procedures. Some states have a winner-take-all formula, some states split their delegates based on the proportion of the votes won by each candidate (Iowa does this). And increasingly, there are battles among the early states to be the ‘earliest’: this makes the particular state more important in the outcome of the presidential candidate selection process (and puts the state in the media spotlight to a greater degree). Something similar to this happened in 2008 as well.
So what’s worth watching in the days to come?
Taking a look at how the Republican field is shaping up, Mitt Romney is the clear front-runner leading up to January 21st. He’s got momentum on his side, and has deep pockets. The biggest news coming out of his campaign is the recent announcement of his tax records that show he only paid 15% on his income last year. This certainly does not help him in showing the public he’s a ‘regular American’, but his poll numbers haven’t suffered too much since the announcement.
The biggest news leading up to South Carolina in the last few days has been the endorsement of Rick Santorum by the nation’s social conservatives, and Jon Huntsman’s exit from the race and subsequent endorsement of Romney. The field is now down to five.
Newt Gingrich has come under fire for stirring up racial sentiments in the state during the Myrtle Beach Republican debate a couple of days ago. Perhaps the most proficient debater of the field however, and the most politically experience of the group, Gingrich will continue to garner support no matter how inflammatory his comments appear to be.
Rick Perry, an avid hunter from Texas, is only polling at 6% in South Carolina as of yesterday, and may be forced to shut his campaign down after Saturday.
As for Ron Paul, consistent as always, his campaign is likely in the race for the long haul, so a strong result in the state is enough – he doesn’t need to win to keep going. Good results in Iowa and New Hampshire have given him the momentum to carry on his campaign well into the upcoming months. He hasn’t even campaigned very hard in the state compared to his fellow candidates.
Anticipation is building as South Carolina could end up being a Republican king-maker again very soon. If Romney takes the state, the stage will be set for him to sail into the convention this summer as the clear Republican choice.
In a series of blog posts to follow, I'll be providing daily insight and analysis on what unfolds in South Carolina, Florida, and the states that hold their primaries on ‘Super Tuesday’ in March. This Friday I’ll be heading to a Newt Gingrich event in Charleston, South Carolina, and I’ll remain in the state into the next night to update readers on what happens after the votes are counted.