Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Now All GOP Eyes Turn South to the Palmetto State's Politics

By Michael Bitzer

Now that the first two contests of the GOP presidential primary season are in the books, all eyes now turn to February 24's primary in South Carolina, the "first in the South" contest for the Republicans (Democrats will have their official first primary contest in the nation in South Carolina on February 3). 

Before diving into Palmetto politics, a bit of a review of some interesting trends in both Iowa's and New Hampshire's polls (entrance for the Hawkeye State, exit for the Granite State).

First, party identification shows the strength of Republicanism in Iowa and the 'independent' streak in New Hampshire. 

Compiled by author from entrance/exit polls

In Iowa's caucuses, eight out of ten voters identified as Republicans, while in New Hampshire, over four out of ten voters were "independent." Both events allow non-party identifiers to participate, as will South Carolina, but the general election outcome is more critical in New Hampshire, a traditional competitive state in November, while Iowa has moved more into the Republican column (in 2000 and 2004, Republican George W. Bush won with vary narrow margins, while in 2008 and 2012 Barack Obama did the same; however, in 2016 and 2020, Donald Trump expanded the margin of victory in Iowa). 

Among the caucus/primary choices, the divide between party identification is fairly apparent, with majorities of self-identified Republicans (a super-majority in New Hampshire) going for Trump, while independents went more for the challengers (six out of ten New Hampshire independents voted for Haley). 

Another divide within the two electorates is based on the 'diploma divide,' a notable trend in recent general presidential elections. In both Iowa and New Hampshire, college graduates went significantly non-Trump, with two-thirds of 'some college or none' went for Trump. 

Compiled by author from entrance/exit polls

A core component of the modern Republican Party coalition are White evangelical Christians, who typically have given as strong of support to GOP candidates as African American voters have given to Democratic candidates. In the first two nomination contests, signfiicant differences in the electorate's presence of these voters was apparent: Iowa was dominated with 55 percent of caucus attendees identifying as evangelical, while only two out of ten New Hampshire voters said they were evangelical. And while the divide in Iowa between evangelical and non-evangelical voters was minimum, this will be a core consistency in South Carolina's primary coming up--as noted below. 

Compiled by author from entrance/exit polls

Two questions on both polls caught my attention. First, respondents were asked if they believed President Biden was legitimately the winner in 2020. 

Compiled by author from entrance/exit polls

A majority of New Hampshire Republican primary voters and two-thirds of Iowa caucus attendees said no, Biden was not the legitimate winner of 2020's election. And not surprisingly, 70 percent plus of those respondents voted for the former president, who has made the 2020 election a core campaign theme of his third attempt for the White House.

The second question centered on the legal battles that the former president is facing alongside the political primary battles. Posing the hypothetical "if Trump were convicted of a crime, would he still be fit to be president?," again, significant majorities in both states answered "yes," the former president could hold office if he was convicted in one of the several trials underway.

Compiled by author from entrance/exit polls

And within both states, super-majorities of respondents who said they would consider Trump fit with a conviction voted for the former president in the primary elections, while nearly nine-out-of-ten in Iowa and 85 percent in New Hampshire who believed Trump would not be fit for office voted for his opponents. 

If one (or more) of the pending trails results in a conviction, political observers would need to pay careful attention to those who believe it would make Trump not-fit for office and see their political leanings as the nation draws closer to November (most notably, does their partisan affiliation override their conviction concerns or not?). 

All of these aspects will be important ones to watch going forward, because each of these dynamics can give us a potential sense of what lies ahead for a Trump candidacy if he secures the GOP nomination--and based on Iowa and New Hampshire, it appears the former president is on his way to securing a third nomination bid. 

Turning to South Carolina's GOP contest

Readers would be well advised to pick up and read the comprehensive study of South Carolina's role in presidential primary politics that is found in Gibbs Knotts and Jordan Ragusa's First in the South: Why South Carolina's Presidential Primary Matters

The two College of Charleston political scientists provide a comprehensive and well-analyzed book about the Palmetto State's role in deciding who will be the presidential nominees in both parties, and several factors are worth noting to watch in the February 24 contest between the former U.S. president and the state's former governor. 

First off, most observers note the GOP primary electorate's composition, described as being "blocs of 'moderates,' 'somewhat conservatives,' 'very conservative evangelicals,' and 'very conservative seculars'" to "a military contingent, a strong business establishment, and evangelicals who don't always vote in a bloc" (40). Knotts and Ragusa note in their analysis that among thirty-seven states with available polling data, "South Carolina is the third most representative state" when it comes to Republican Party representativeness, and "is about twice as representative of the national Republican primary electorate as Iowa and New Hampshire" (50-51). 

In particular, Knotts and Ragusa find that SC's GOP primary electorate more closely matches the national Republican primary electorate based on percentage of veterans, those with a college education, a focus on world affairs, economic issues, and social issues, compared to the first two traditional contests in Iowa and New Hampshire (52). 

However, they do find that SC is disproportionate in the electorate in terms of overrepresentation among white voters, born-again evangelical Christians, and female voters, compared to the party's national averages (58).

For February 24's contest, it is likely that South Carolina's GOP electorate will more closely resemble Iowa's than New Hampshire's, thus giving us a more closely aligned-party electorate to compare & contrast its results against. 

To remind folks of how both candidates did in their initial primary contests (Haley's 2010 gubernatorial primary and Trump's 2016 presidential preference primary), here are the two contests by South Carolina counties, first for Haley's contest where she received almost half of the primary votes in 2010:

Data from SC Elections Commission, compiled by author

Haley's 'regional' support was strongest in her home county of Bamberg (where she got 69 percent of the primary vote) down to the coast and Charleston. She also had some strong pockets of support in the upstate, such as Spartanburg (54 percent) and Fairfield (56 percent). 

And Trump's 2016 county-level performances where he secured a third of the primary vote state-wide:

Data from SC Elections Commission, compiled by author

His support was strongest in Horry County, home to Myrtle Beach (with 49 percent of the vote) in the six-man contest, along with several Lowcountry counties.

One county in the state showed strong support for both Haley in 2010 and Trump in 2016: Lee County, located in the Pee Dee region of the state. Lee gave Haley nearly 60 percent of its vote and almost half of its vote (47 percent) to Trump six years later. A majority-minority county that is part of the state's Black Belt region, Lee has fairly small population and is among the smaller primary votes cast in the state.  

As Knotts and Ragusa found in their analysis of South Carolina Republican presidential primaries, the most important variables to success for candidates are dominating media attention and securing endorsements. With the looming fight to come in the Palmetto State, the former president will almost assuredly dominate the state's media coverage, and he has wrapped up several Palmetto politicos endorsements, include former rival US Senator Tim Scott and US Representative Nancy Mace

If Haley can ride out the next few weeks and make it to Feb. 24, it will be interesting to watch how the above county map shifts in their support of these two candidates. 

In particular, as Knotts and Ragusa noted about South Carolina Republican electorates, the potential influence of evangelical Christians, who are social conservatives, will be something to watch, especially in the Upstate region of South Carolina, as noted in this analysis of evangelical Protestant adherence (the darker the color, the more evangelical adherents are in the county):

In one study of SC's 2016 Republican presidential primary, two scholars found that "Trump received more support from mainline Protestants than de did from evangelicals (54 to 37 percent), but perhaps most interestingly, Trump did better among voters with less 'religious commitment'" (Knotts & Ragusa, 97). Trump's 2016 victory was also multifaceted, in that he did "particularly well in rural South Carolina and in the high growth counties of Beaufort, Greenville, and Horry" (97). Most importantly, it was core Republican self-identifiers who gave the most support to Trump. 

Ultimately, Knotts and Ragusa contend that two candidate resources are key to securing the GOP Palmetto primary: media coverage and endorsements. In analyzing past SC presidential Republican primaries, being from the South or a neighboring state also had benefits to winners. 

This year's contest will be an important test to see how media coverage influences the race, with both Trump and Haley able to garner sufficient media coverage. In regards to endorsements, Trump is certainly claiming the lion's share of that already, especially among South Carolina Republicans. But Haley's service as governor might serve as a counterweight, at least, to those endorsements. 

But like in both Iowa and New Hampshire, the likely dominance of self-identified Republicans over 'independents' voting in the primary, and where the self-identified Republican ballots go to between the two combatants, will be the potential determinative factor, as evident in both Iowa and New Hampshire.

As an FYI for readers, below are South Carolina's counties with the two candidate's performance in their initial primary contests:


Dr. Michael Bitzer holds the Leonard Chair of political science and is a professor of politics and history at Catawba College. He is on social media @bowtiepolitics and here