US primaries #5: South Carolina

by Jackie_South on February 20, 2016

South Carolina iconTomorrow, the paths of the two US parties in seeking their presidential candidates separate. The Democrats head out West to Nevada, whilst the Republicans slog it out in the Deep South, in South Carolina. This post looks at the Republican race in the Palmetto State.

South Carolina differs from the first two states that have held primaries in a number of respects. First, it is much larger: at 4.9m people, it is more populous than Iowa and New Hampshire combined. Second, unlike those states South Carolina is not a swing state, it is a reliably Republican one.

Third, and in some ways most importantly, it distributes its Republican convention delegates differently. Whilst in the first two contests, candidates could pick up delegates if they did not win in South Carolina it is a winner-takes-all contest at a congressional district and statewide. That nature of the election has often made South Carolina a key decider in Republican primaries (2012 was the exception): Bush’s win there in 2000 and McCain’s there in 2008 pretty much guaranteed their eventual victory.

The State

South Carolina master map

South Carolina has not voted for a Democrat for president since Jimmy Carter in 1976 (when all the South bar Oklahoma and Virginia voted Democrat), but Romney was less than 11% ahead of Obama (less than in Indiana which Obama won in 2008 and much less than the gap in once reliably Democratic West Virginia). In fact, 21 of the state’s 46 counties voted for Obama in 2012.

South Carolina 2012 result map


The map shows Democrats doing well in belt running east-west to the south of the state capital, Columbia, including much of the metropolitan area of that city. But this is easily outweighed by the Republicans in the Upstate region, centred on the state’s most populous urban area around Greenville, and in the Grand Strand area around Myrtle Beach. Greenville is one of the most conservative cities in the country, famous for its evangelical college, Bob Jones University.

The map below shows the votes in 2012 aggregated for the eight regions of the state. The Democrats were ahead in the Midland region centred on Columbia and in the Pee Dee river basin region, centred on the spectacle-manufacture capital of Florence, and competitive in Greater Charleston and in the Low Country.

But those large majorities in Upstate and the Grand Strand put the state beyond contention. The South Carolina part of Metrolina (the region based on Charlotte, across the Carolina border) also votes strongly for Republicans in presidential elections.

SC 2012 regional results


Politically, South Carolina though has sometimes differed from other parts of the South. It has a non-white female governor (Nikki Haley is of Indian origin) and it is the only Southern state to have elected a black senator since Reconstruction ended (Tea Partier Tim Scott).

It sometimes sees itself as being exceptional in the Deep South, as the historic heart of the region and in the early years of the nation it was a Federalist enclave surrounded by the Democratic-Republican heartland. That strong sense of identity made it the first state to secede from the Union in 1861, having almost done so in the 1830s. It is no coincidence that it has had such conflict in the wake of the Dylann Roof shooting in Charleston and the subsequent arguments around the Confederate flag last year.

Our final map shows the seven congressional districts in the state. For each district, the first digits are its district number (SC-01 etc) and the second shows its partisan rating – the percentage over the national average by which it tends to vote Democrat (D) or Republican (R) in presidential elections.

Despite the relatively modest 55%-44% lead that Mitt Romney had in the state, the Republicans hold six of the seven districts. This is as a result of some fairly obvious gerrymandering: the Democrat district – the sixth – is the safest district in the state, taking in the centre of Columbia, North Charleston and much of the Black Belt. This hoovers up the Democratic voters in such numbers that it prevents them winning elsewhere in the state.

South Carolina cong dists

The districts are key. Of the 50 delegates, the winner in each district wins six and the winner of the state wins the remaining eight. Unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, there are no prizes for second place in any district or state-wide.

The Primary

Donald Trump should win the state, and the winner-takes-all per district and then at a state level  should see him take a hefty chunk of the fifty delegates on offer. But his lead is not quite as commanding as it was a week ago: now around 15% rather than the 20% plus leads he was polling in the state earlier in the month.

SC GOP polls 2016

These polls were all taken before his recent spat with the Pope. South Carolina is not a very Catholic state, so it may do limited damage, but it still seems unwise in a state that takes its Christianity seriously.

The polls currently show that Ted Cruz is in second place. He has been in a tight fight with Marco Rubio for the silver medal position for the last week or so, and it still looks tight between them. Cruz effectively skipped New Hampshire to make a strong run in the Palmetto State to maximise his chances, and if he cannot secure second place among its conservative voters his chances seem limited. Cruz has received a late campaign boost through the endorsement of Charlestonian congressman and former governor Mark Sanford.

After a solid TV debate performance in the wake of his New Hampshire flop, Marco Rubio looked to be making an effective recovery, overtaking Cruz in some polls a week ago. Whilst Cruz now appears to have a slight edge, it is entirely possible still for him to take second place. Doing so would enable him to start to portray himself as the viable left-of-Trump candidate. Rubio was endorsed by governor Haley this week which may help him to second place.

Fourth place at the moment goes to Jeb Bush. He has thrown all he has into the state this week, getting his elder brother (and former South Carolina victor) George W Bush and other family members to lend a hand.

It is paying off to some extent: he had been flat-lining at around 10% in the state since the start of the year but has now climbed to 14% on average, apparently drawing support from Trump. But it seems like too little too late and his presidential hopes appear to be receding as quickly as we saw his older brother’s hairline has.

After his second place in New Hampshire, John Kasich‘s support picked up but his momentum has now stalled. It is difficult to see what more he an do here.

Finally, South Carolina looks like signalling we are reaching the end of Ben Carson‘s campaign. South Carolina should be ideal for him: evangelically Christian with a literalist bent to its views on the Bible, a state with a large Black population that elects non-white politicians. Yet his support now in the state is less than half what it was at the start of the year – and he was fourth then.


The reduction of Trump’s lead might prevent him winning all fifty delegates (perhaps Cruz will win in either district 3 or 4, perhaps Rubio will win in district 2 or 6) but he will win the lion’s share of the delegates. Together with a likely win during the week in Nevada, he is beginning to look hard to stop.

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