South Carolina was the first piece in the Republican Party’s Southern strategy, the only state in the region to vote for both Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Richard Nixon in 1968. It has been rewarded with hosting privileges for one of the earliest and most important contests used to select the GOP’s presidential nominees.
(Un)Conventional Wisdom is presenting a short history of each state’s role in modern presidential politics. South Carolina is the eighth in the series.
In a reverse of trends in New England, the state of South Carolina has gone from reliably Democratic to rock-ribbed (“pork-ribbed”?) Republican. The transformation was not the result of a massive switch in party allegiance. Rather, a state that had been known for absurdly low voter participation lifted itself to something close to the national average (57 percent of the eligible population in 2012, two points lower than the U.S. as a whole).
In 1944, when the state had a population of about 1.9 million, a total of 103,375 ballots were cast in the presidential election, giving Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt a Soviet-like 88 percent of the vote. (The state had eight electoral votes, the same as Washington, which cast 856,000 votes.) Twenty years later, with the state’s population at about 2.4 million, 524,756 voters turned out, giving Barry Goldwater 59 percent of the vote and the first win by a Republican since Reconstruction. In 1968, it voted for Republican Richard Nixon while the other four Goldwater states in the South switched to independent George Wallace.
Since then, the state has voted Democratic just once, when Jimmy Carter first ran in 1976. African-Americans in South Carolina, effectively disenfranchised until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, consistently vote Democratic by huge margins, but white voters have been lopsidedly Republican. The latter group may be expressing general opposition to a powerful federal government; they may also have little nostalgia for the ruling class that once made South Carolina a one-party state run by Democrats.
Current Republican control over South Carolina is not as absolute, but it could be as longlasting. The GOP here demonstrates a flexibility not found in all Southern states, going back to its early embrace of Nixon. The state is currently represented in the U.S. Senate by two Republicans: Lindsey Graham, whose heresies against his own party include support for immigration reform and a belief in man-made global warming, and Tim Scott, the first African-American elected from a Southern state since Reconstruction.
Graham and Scott joined Republican Gov. Nikki Haley in supporting the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state Capitol after a white supremacist shot and killed nine black parishioners at an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in June. The speed with which the flag fell here surprised a lot of people, but it made sense in a state whose prosperity depends on attracting new residents who do not identify with the Confederacy. According to Census data, 26 percent of South Carolina’s current residents were not born in the South. That compares with 14 percent in Alabama and 11 percent in Mississippi, to take two other states that supported South Carolina segregationist Strom Thurmond in his independent bid for the presidency in 1948.
Not that the removal of the flag has ended racial divisions in the state. As the New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb wrote, “Taking it down offers a kind of equality—an equality of emptiness—to black South Carolinians. Given the obvious electoral considerations, I thought that…Haley did as much as any Republican could be expected to do. Haley is not, for instance, going to expand Medicaid or allocate funding to black schools—to uproot that disparity that the flag spoke to but most certainly did not cause.”
Much of the current Republican dominance of South Carolina can be credited to two counties. Greenville County, in the northwestern corner of the state, is the anchor of what The New York Times’s Micah Cohen called the Upstate region in 2012: “A large share of voters in Upstate are Evangelical Christians, and the Tea Party is popular there. The region is still one of the nation’s largest textile producers, but the industry is a shadow of its former self. Automobile companies, like BMW, have moved in to fill part of the gap.”
Greenville County last voted Democratic in 1956, when 27,000 votes were tallied. In 2012, the county boasted 193,000 votes and gave Mitt Romney 63 percent. (Neighboring Spartanburg County is smaller and has a more recent Democratic history, voting for Carter in 1976, but Romney’s 61 percent in the last election wasn’t much of a distinction.) Greenville County is still growing quickly—with a population increase of 7 percent between 2010 and 2014 versus a statewide average of 4.5 percent—and is likely to add to the Republican victory cushion in 2016 and beyond.
Another Republican constant is Lexington County, which includes suburbs of Columbia, the largest city in South Carolina. Lexington County last voted Democratic in 1944, when it cast 2,120 votes; in the last presidential election, it cast 113,000 votes and gave Romney 68 percent of the vote. Romney’s margin of 43,000 votes almost cancelled President Obama’s margin of 51,000 votes in Columbia’s Richland County.
Obama won almost half of South Carolina’s counties in 2012 (21 out of 46), but outside of Columbia and Charleston, he mostly won majority-black counties with few votes. Romney took the state easily by winning smaller urban areas, suburban Columbia, and Hilton Head’s Beaufort County, a resort area that has more than tripled in population since 1970. That combination puts South Carolina in the safe Republican column for 2016.
South Carolina gets little attention in general elections, but it has a pivotal role in presidential primary seasons, especially on the Republican side. Beginning in 1980, it has served as a tie-breaker after the first two contests, giving the nod to the winner of the Iowa caucuses in 1996 (Bob Dole over Pat Buchanan) and 2000 (George W. Bush over John McCain) and reaffirming the choice of New Hampshire primary voters in 1980 (Ronald Reagan over George H.W. Bush) and 1988 (Bush I over Dole). Only in 2012 did South Carolina fail to pick the eventual Republican nominee: passing on Iowa winner Rick Santorum and New Hampshire winner Mitt Romney, the state’s GOP voters gave Newt Gingrich his only win outside of his home state of Georgia.
Reflecting national patterns, the most Republican areas of South Carolina tend to support the more steadfastly conservative candidates in GOP primaries, while “blue” areas are more receptive to moderates (or, to their opponents “RINOs”). In 2000, George W. Bush beat “maverick” John McCain by a total of 35,000 votes in Greenville, Spartanburg and Lexington Counties, accounting for more than half of his 66,000-vote margin statewide. McCain won Beaufort, Charleston and other coastal counties; they stuck with him in 2008, allowing him to win the primary with a mere 33 percent over Mike Huckabee, Fred Thompson, and others.
In 2012, Gingrich won 43 counties, losing only Beaufort, Charleston, and Richland (Columbia) counties to Romney.
South Carolina demographics (Census Bureau)
Where South Carolina residents come from (New York Times). “In 1900, 95 percent of the residents of South Carolina were born there—the highest rate in the nation at the time.” That figure is now 58 percent.
Religious composition of South Carolina (Pew Research Center)
Note: The best source for state- and county-level presidential election results is Dave Leip’s Atlas of Presidential Elections.
South Carolina has been more Republican than the U.S. as a whole since 1984.