In South Carolina, conservative evangelical Republicans dominate the manufacturing-rich Upstate region, as the state’s fast-growing northwest is called.
The tourism hot spots along the coast are magnets for affluent new residents, some libertarian-leaning.
Meanwhile, the state’s rural, majority-black Democratic counties are shrinking, reminders of a now-depressed agricultural economy that once flourished.
Palmetto State Republicans and Democrats both have something at stake in the February presidential primaries, the Republicans on Saturday and the Democrats on Feb. 27. Both dates were set by the national parties to accommodate different views about whether it would be better to vote at the same time or after the Nevada caucuses, which also take place on different days, Saturday for the Democrats and next Tuesday for the Republicans.
Republicans are hoping to recover the state’s vaunted status as the GOP bellwether, predicting the party’s eventual presidential nominee. Flawless since the state’s first GOP primary in 1980, that reputation was tarnished in 2012, when Newt Gingrich – not Mitt Romney – won the South Carolina primary.
If South Carolina Republicans go rogue again, picking an outlier, the state’s political prominence likely will fade as it “blends into the woodwork of other Southern states,” said Scott Buchanan, a political scientist at The Citadel, South Carolina’s state-supported military academy.
At stake for Democrats is a chance to be relevant again, highlighting their dream of shaping a New South politically.
Already South Carolina has shaped the Democratic presidential debate, as candidates weighed in after the racially motivated slaying last June of nine African-Americans in a Charleston church and, subsequently, the removal of the Confederate flag from the State House grounds.
South Carolina’s Democratic presidential primary will provide the first true test of the candidates’ appeal to black voters after votes in Iowa and New Hampshire, states with far less diversity. More than half of South Carolina’s Democratic voters are black, a key group of party supporters across the South.
It wasn’t always so. Fifty years ago, conservative Democrats controlled South Carolina. Then, after the Democratic Party nationally pressed for civil rights, white conservatives fled to the GOP. Now Republicans are firmly in control. They’ve controlled the legislature since 2000, the governor’s office since 2002 and all other statewide offices since 2010.
Over the years, the GOP has ruptured internally. Now the interests of Christian conservatives and moderate, Chamber-of-Commerce Republicans who helped build the party are clashing with anti-establishment Libertarian and tea party voters, who have pushed the party to the right.
Whether that division will remain through this year’s GOP primary remains to be seen. Republican National Committeeman Glenn McCall of Rock Hill, S.C., predicts higher turnout among evangelical and moderate conservatives and a push for more mainline candidates. South Carolina’s GOP voters, McCall said, “will do the right thing and pick the eventual nominee.”
So far, South Carolina seems to be favoring less establishment candidates. Donald Trump has led every South Carolina GOP poll since July except one, which fellow non-politician Ben Carson led. In the most recent sounding, he was favored by 35 percent of likely voters, while Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio were trailing with 18 percent each.
In part, that’s because South Carolina’s changing demographics are changing its politics.
South Carolina has seen a stream of newcomers settling in the coastal communities that stretch from Myrtle Beach to Charleston to Beaufort and Hilton Head.
The socially conservative Upstate and the Piedmont region south of Charlotte have seen a political shift, too, because of newcomers.
“The state is still beet-dark red,” said The Citadel’s Buchanan. But “people moving into the state . . . are not as socially conservative as what native South Carolinians tend to be.”
“Those voters tend to be older, more conservative in terms of economics, and they also tend to come from the Northeast and upper Midwest, where social conservatism is not a big deal,” he said.
Many of these new South Carolina Republicans lean more fiscally conservative, embracing libertarian and tea party themes.
Buchanan cited U.S. Rep. John Spratt’s 2010 loss to tea party-backed Mick Mulvaney as evidence of that political shift. Spratt, a conservative Democrat, had held office for 28 years. When he lost his congressional seat, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of Columbia became South Carolina’s only Democrat in Congress, representing a heavily gerrymandered, African-American district.
South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison remains hopeful, however, that Democrats can prosper in some fast-growing parts of the state. He noted that no Republicans ran for mayor of Charleston, “probably South Carolina’s most popular city, most well-known city,” last November.
“That’s a tremendous indicator that Democrats are doing something right down there,” he said.
Charleston, which Democratic President Barack Obama won in the 2008 and 2012 general elections, is a top international tourist destination, drawing more affluent residents from out of state.
Still, South Carolina Democrats struggle to remain relevant. Strong candidates for statewide office have eluded the party, giving way to embarrassments.
In 2010, an unknown, unemployed Army veteran named Alvin Greene won the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, then lost to Republican Sen. Jim DeMint after Democrats considered and rejected throwing Greene off the ballot.
Democrats also suffered huge losses in the state’s 2014 midterm elections.
The South Carolina Democratic Party’s first African-American chairman, Harrison has launched a statewide effort to recruit young talent into the party, providing them with guidance on how to run for office or manage campaigns.
The party’s Feb. 27 primary gives it as chance to shine in a national spotlight, he said.
Winning big in the state’s Democratic primary in 2008 propelled then-U.S. Sen. Obama to his party’s nomination, Harrison said. “Had Obama not won South Carolina in 2008, I don’t think he would be president right now.”
But that was 2008, when Obama’s historic candidacy led to record voter turnout.
Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has led every South Carolina poll this year by margins of 23 to 70 percentage points, largely on the basis of black support.
Whether the Democratic presidential candidates can drum up the same enthusiasm in 2016 will be a test of the party’s strength, The Citadel’s Buchanan said.
“Are black voters as excited about the Democratic nominee as they were in 2008 and 2012?” Buchanan said. “That’s a big question that remains to be answered.”