Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Palmetto Principles, Part I

"History is inescapable anywhere," wrote Richard Cohen and James Barnes in their entry on South Carolina in the 2016 edition of The Almanac of American Politics.

They wrote that as their lead–in to a discussion of last year's racially motivated shootings at an historic black church in Charleston — but in a larger context it was about South Carolina's often troubled history that, as often as not, has crossed all kinds of boundaries — not only racial but economic and social as well.

The state's political history, however, has been more progressive than many people outside the South would care to admit — and that really is representative of many Southern states as well. The state's governor is an Indian–American woman — the first woman and the first racial minority to be the state's chief executive. She won with 51% of the vote in 2010; she received 56% of the vote when she sought re–election in 2014. One of the state's U.S. senators is black. He was appointed to replace Jim DeMint who resigned suddenly in 2013, but Tim Scott received 61% of the vote in a special election to fill the last two years of DeMint's term in 2014.

Both are Republicans, though, which reflects, in historical terms, a recent phenomenon in both the state and the region. Democrats were long in the majority in the South, and most officeholders in most Southern states were Democrats, but then Richard Nixon introduced his Southern strategy and put the transformation into motion.

South Carolina and the rest of the South have been trending solidly Republican in presidential politics for decades now. South Carolina was the only Deep South state — with the debatable exception of Florida — to support Nixon over George Wallace in 1968, and it has only voted for one Democrat (Jimmy Carter in 1976) since then.

"The primaries are not so predictable," wrote Cohen and Barnes. "South Carolina was decisive in determining the Republican nomination from 1988 to 2008," in no small part because it was moved to the front of the political calendar, putting it in position to influence the largely Southern "Super Tuesday" that follows. That is precisely what happened in 1988. Vice President George H.W. Bush won by a wide margin in South Carolina, then went on to do rather well on Super Tuesday a few days later.

The first two electoral skirmishes in the 2016 presidential calendar were held in places that have been known more for supporting ill–fated insurgents than realistic candidates for presidential nominations. South Carolina, which holds its Republican primary this Saturday and its Democratic primary on Feb. 27, has become known for frequently endorsing candidates who ultimately won their parties' nominations.

There have been exceptions, of course. On the Republican side, Newt Gingrich defeated eventual nominee Mitt Romney in South Carolina four years ago.

But South Carolina's Republicans had an unbroken streak going from 1980 to 2008, endorsing Ronald Reagan in 1980 (he was unchallenged there when he sought a second term in 1984), George H.W. Bush in 1988 and 1992, Bob Dole in 1996, George W. Bush in 2000 (like Reagan, Bush was unchallenged when he sought his second term in 2004) and John McCain in 2008.

From an historical perspective, it seems to me that winning South Carolina would be more meaningful than a win in New Hampshire or Iowa, even though those earlier clashes offered early momentum and media exposure to the winners.

Not that Donald Trump needs much in the way of exposure. But New Hampshire gave him a little momentum, perhaps a little credibility in his new field — and cut back on some of the momentum and media buzz generated by Ted Cruz in the Iowa caucuses. A second primary win would add to Trump's electoral credibility.

As I say, though, the outcomes in Iowa and New Hampshire have had little influence on the races for the nomination in recent years. It wasn't always that way in New Hampshire. For a long time, conventional wisdom held that, if a candidate did not win the New Hampshire primary, that candidate could not win the election.

Bill Clinton was the first presidential candidate to lose the New Hampshire primary (in 1992) but go on to win the election. Both of his successors did the same thing. George W. Bush lost to McCain in 2000 and Barack Obama lost to Hillary Clinton in 2008. Like President Clinton, both won the New Hampshire primary with no credible opposition when they sought re–election.

Thus, no nonincumbent has been elected president after winning the New Hampshire primary since George H.W. Bush in 1988.

On the other hand, history is loaded with recent examples of eventual presidents–elect who won the South Carolina primary.

So it seems to me that South Carolina is clearly the prize for Republicans. If the state's Republicans endorse a candidate who goes on to win the nomination — and, as I have observed, only Mitt Romney failed to achieve both in the last 36 years — he will probably end up with a convincing win in the Palmetto State in November. After all, Romney defeated Obama by more than 200,000 votes in South Carolina in 2012.

Defeat in South Carolina need not be decisive. But I guess that depends on how wide the margin is.

Let's take a look at some of the recent polls in South Carolina for clues to what might happen on Saturday:

Today a Public Policy Polling survey of nearly 900 likely primary voters was released that showed Trump with nearly a 2–to–1 lead over Cruz and Marco Rubio. Trump had 35%, and Cruz and Rubio each had 18%. The poll has a 3.3% margin of error.

On Monday, the South Carolina House Republican Caucus released a survey of more than 1,300 likely voters that showed Trump with a better than 2–to–1 lead. In that survey, Trump had 32.65%, Rubio had 14.02%, Cruz had 13.94% and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush had 13.39%. The margin of error in that survey is 2.83%.

CBS News/YouGov reported the results of a survey on Sunday that, once again, showed Trump with more than a 2–to–1 lead. Trump had 42%, Cruz had 20% and Rubio had 15%.

On Saturday American Research Group reported the results of a survey that had Trump leading by something like 2⅓ to 1. Trump had 35%, Ohio Gov. John Kasich had 15%, Rubio had 14%, Cruz had 12% and Bush had 10%.

Last Friday the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle reported that its survey had Trump with the narrowest lead of all, 36% to Cruz's 20% and Rubio's 15%.

There are sure to be other surveys in the next few days — and I always remind people that polls are like snapshots, not videos. They give people an idea of what sentiment was like at the time the survey was conducted. But sentiments can change in a matter of days, hours, even minutes.

Right now, the polls suggest that Trump is likely to win by a wide margin. Thus, most of the attention probably will be on who finishes second — and, thus, who may emerge as Trump's main challenger for the nomination. The polls seem to suggest that Cruz is likely to finish second — although it could be Rubio. It might even be Bush, whose father and brother always did well there.

But that really is nothing more than a sideshow because, as I observed earlier, the winner in South Carolina usually goes on to win the nomination. At best the runner–up buys himself some time to compete in upcoming primaries, but in the last three dozen years, only Romney has come back from a second–place finish in South Carolina to win his party's nomination.

It's getting serious now. That's true in both parties, as I will point out in this space next week.

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