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How South Carolina Has Worked Its GOP Crystal Ball

Jan 20, 2012
Originally published on January 20, 2012 6:08 pm

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 McCain in 2008.

"Republicans generally, and Southerners specifically, are hierarchical," says Republican strategist Ed Rogers. "We appreciate someone coming up through the ranks. I worked for a long time for [onetime Republican National Committee Chairman] 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 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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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel. And we begin this hour in South Carolina. Voters head to the polls there tomorrow for the first Southern primary. Every election year since 1980, the winner of that state's Republican primary has gone on to capture the presidential nomination and that's no accident, as NPR's Mara Liasson explains from Charleston.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: South Carolina 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. So by definition, it's more representative of Republican preferences than the other early primary states.

Dave Woodard is a Clemson University professor and former Republican consultant.

DAVE WOODARD: We've got Iowa, New Hampshire and Florida, all voted for Barack Obama in 2008. South Carolina hasn't voted for a Democrat since 1976. I mean, 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.

LIASSON: 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 here, 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 McCain in 2008.

Republican strategist Ed Rogers.

ED ROGERS: Republicans generally, and Southerners specifically, are hierarchical and we appreciate someone coming up through the ranks. I worked for a long time for 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.

LIASSON: All the Republican nominees, starting with Ronald Reagan in 1980, certainly would agree that South Carolina Republicans are very discerning.

GEORGE H. W. BUSH: Thank you so very much. Victory has 100 fathers and this victory in South Carolina truly did. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Thank you, South Carolina.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Thank you all very much.

GEORGE W. BUSH: Tonight in this great state of South Carolina, we have ignited our cause.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Thank you, South Carolina, for bringing us across the finish line first in the first in the South primary.

LIASSON: That last victorious candidate, of course, was John McCain, whose victory in South Carolina in 2008 is a model Mitt Romney would like to follow. McCain won with 33 percent of the vote in South Carolina four years ago because Fred Thompson and Mike Huckabee split the conservative vote. The same dynamic could still work for Romney this year, says South Carolina Republican Senator Jim DeMint.

SENATOR JIM DEMINT: What happens a lot, and it happened in the last presidential primary, could happen here, is that the conservatives divide their vote among a number of conservative candidates, and sometimes the more moderate establishment candidate wins. That's not all together bad.

LIASSON: Bad or good, it's 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 Governor Rick Perry dropped out of the race yesterday and endorsed Newt Gingrich, the man on the right who has been surging in the polls here.

But Rick Santorum and Ron Paul are still in the race today, 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.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Charleston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.