In the past week or so, South Carolina has been lucky enough to be the focus of national attention as the country’s presidential candidates do their best to win the Palmetto State’s favor.
As home to the First in the South Primary, South Carolina possesses the ability to influence an entire region in selecting America’s next leader, but first we must figure out each party’s top nominee — starting with the Republican vote set for Sat. Feb. 20.
“From the Republican side, it’s interesting because South Carolina Republicans have always historically prided themselves on being a bit more historically representative than Iowa and New Hampshire and having the ability to pick the eventual nominee,” says Gibbs Knotts, professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at the College of Charleston. “That happened in every contested election between 1980, when they picked Reagan, up through 2008 when McCain was the nominee. That of course changed in 2012. South Carolina went for Newt Gingrich. He was eventually beat out by Romney.”
While the days leading up to the big nomination have been fraught with aggressive stumping, threats of legal action, and tweets of monogrammed guns, the final selection may come down to the sway of three influential groups.
“One is that kind of anti-establishment, anti-government group. Trump’s not the only person tapping into that, but he’s the figurehead. There’s been a long tradition of that anti-government skepticism in South Carolina dating back to the Civil War and before,” says Knotts. “The second big one is the Evangelical voters. Cruz won Iowa doing the best among Evangelical voters, who make up a pretty big chunk of Iowa Republicans. Evangelical or Born-Again voters are probably going to make up about 60 percent of the Republican electorate, so that’s a huge advantage for Ted Cruz. Trump will win some Evangelical votes. He has been, but Cruz tends to do the best with that group.”
Knotts adds, “The third group is that long-standing, picking-an-establishment candidate who can win the primary, and the problem is that there are several folks making that case. The big three are [Marco] Rubio, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich with a little bit of a late surge. ... If that group, which would be a third of the electorate, splits three ways, then that’s just even better for people like Cruz and Trump. I’m curious to see how that breaks down.”
The frontrunner for the third group may have been decided with Gov. Nikki Haley’s endorsement of Sen. Rubio on Wednesday, cementing the young candidate as the establishment party pick in the primary election. Although Trump leads in South Carolina by a wide margin in most major polls and it seems to be his race to lose, only Saturday’s results can say for sure who will likely represent the Republican Party in the presidential election.