I was a poll official in the 1996 Republican Presidential Primary in South Carolina in one of the most important Republican counties: Lexington. At the time, the Republican Party used small paper ballots that seemed to be printed on rice paper. After the ballot was cast, the voter would fold them and hand them to me. I squeezed them into a small slit on the ballot box. Unfortunately, the paper was so thin that no matter how hard I tried to avert my eyes, a poll official would usually see for whom the voter voted. Even the imprint of a pen in a certain place unfortunately revealed the preference of a voter. I took to trying to slide the ballot into the box blind without looking, but you can only do so much. Since then, the party no longer runs the elections and paper ballots, which are the worst form of voting possible, are not used.
This experience yielded insights into the electorate that day based on age, gender, race, and even clothing (eg. button down shirt vs. #3 hat). While there are exceptions to the rule, politics is often a contest of competing cultural and demographic clans. South Carolina has “rules” and clans and trends to watch for that bear little resemblance to Iowa or New Hampshire. Here’s five:
5. Geography Rules.
Lexington County is usually the bell wether county. The largest Republican county, the winner of Lexington usually is the winner overall. But a Republican needs numbers in the upstate to win. Greenville and Spartanburg counties are the deep reservoir of Republican votes, and they skew heavily conservative and evangelical. Trump can finish a close second in the upstate to Ted Cruz, win Lexington and probably win the primary. On the other hand, a candidate who draws top numbers out of Greenville, Spartanburg and Lexington is almost certainly going to win the state. Richland County, the seat of state government, will be friendlier to the establishment preferred candidate such as Bush or Rubio. Charleston and the coast is filled with less ideological Republicans and new transplants from the north. Trump or Bush may play well there.
The biggest question is whether Trump, despite his vulgarity, pro-choice background and trial balloon to appoint his staunch pro-abortion sister to the Supreme Court, can pull enough evangelical voters away from Ted Cruz. If evangelicals vote their anger instead of their beliefs, it could be a good day for Trump.
4. Ted Cruz is winning the South Carolina Ground Game for now.
I spoke with a number of South Carolina GOP activists including former county chairs in some of the big GOP counties. They tell me the Cruz ground game appears to be running at high RPMs. Large road signs have been a staple of South Carolina politics. Cruz has the most 4 x 8 signs along roads. Trump doesn’t have much of a presence on the ground. I am told Kasich and Rubio are nowhere to be seen. It is inconceivable that Kasich will be able to sustain his second place finish from New Hampshire.
3. Deep respect for the Bush family spells trouble for Marco Rubio.
The Bush family cultivated deep and profound loyalty in South Carolina over 20 years. Among the pro-defense rank and file, both father and son are very popular and this loyalty is stronger than any aversion to extending the Bush dynasty. On top of that, both Bushes cultivated loyalty among party officials, donors and ex-government officials. I would not be surprised if Jeb Bush won Richland County, and I expect him to finish no worse than second there.
All of which spells trouble for Marco Rubio. Rubio’s fall from third in Iowa to a punch line based on a bad Styx song in less than a week shows how a well timed debate punch can trigger costumed street theater and a frenzy on social and conservative media. It didn’t help that a Rubio partisan was caught on video roughing up a costumed Mr. Roboto. Ideological conservatives in South Carolina seem more likely to gravitate toward Ted Cruz than Rubio. After New Hampshire, Rubio appears to have shrinking territory in South Carolina.
2. Dirty tricks are standard fare in South Carolina politics.
When Ben Carson complained about Cruz supporters mentioning Carson was skipping New Hampshire to get fresh clothes in Florida, Carson and Trump spent days using this phony issue to try to slow Cruz down. On Twitter, some called it vote fraud.
It wasn’t. Voter fraud has a specific meaning, and telling caucus goers that Carson announced he is going to jet off to Florida instead of behaving like a candidate isn’t voter fraud. It’s competence. Nor does a campaign bear an obligation to provide updates to every tweet or email it has sent. That’s Carson’s job, not Cruz’s.
If you are still hot about Cruz, then you better stop paying attention. South Carolina is the place where anything that isn’t illegal is going to happen, and there is nothing the candidates can do about it. Activists in all camps know the tricks. South Carolina is the home of rough stuff. It is where Carroll Campbell and Lee Atwater transformed a state and spawned generations of political activists to follow in their footsteps. What Cruz did to Carson in Iowa is ponies, cupcakes and roses compared to what’s coming. As I’ve written at PJ Media before:
South Carolina is the land of three dearly departed political masters: Lee Atwater, Carroll Campbell and Rod Shealy. These three political operators gave no quarter to foes, and a new generation of consultants has taken their place. I recall one political consultant in South Carolina who made a point to spray paint his own client’s signs with slurs. Sympathy, you see, gets votes too.
1. Does South Carolina Still Have a Culture of Courtesy?
South Carolina is a state where politics might involve behind-the-scenes knife fights, but on the surface politics was a courteous affair. Above all, politicians were courteous. If the political operatives had a culture of no quarter, candidates were polite and well spoken.
I’ve had occasion to meet and spend a great deal of time with so many South Carolina politicians – both Republican and Democrat- and all of them behaved with a profound and ritualistic courtesy: Carroll Campbell, Marshall Williams, Hugh Leatherman, Jim Miles, David Beasley, Joe Wilson, Lindsey Graham, John Courson, John Drummond, Wes Hayes, Phil Leventis, Strom Thurmond, Yancey McGill, Nick Theodore, I could go on and on. None of them behaved or spoke like Donald Trump. They were all gentlemen, and that’s a good thing.
Trump’s bombast and behavior is an anti-body in the South Carolina political culture.
This culture goes back centuries where those with power were expected to sound like they belonged in power. Think Lord Grantham in Downtown Abbey. Those in power spoke about others a certain way and voters were uncomfortable with anyone who didn’t comply with this ancient convention. Those in power were expected to treat others how they would want to be treated.
A candidate like Donald Trump who calls other candidates vulgar names, routinely sprinkles obscene words into his speeches, says things like we’ll “beat the sh&# of enemies” and behaves as Trump behaves would never be in the mix. South Carolina has never liked New York values. If Trump does well, it may signal that South Carolina’s culture of courtesy has faded. A Trump win would mean South Carolina isn’t the place it used to be.