Eight years ago, winning South Carolina meant massive momentum headed into southern Super Tuesday states and, historically, the GOP nomination. Eight years ago, winning South Carolina meant you were the party of Reagan’s mainstream conservative choice.
Today? When John McCain wins South Carolina — as he almost certainly will, for reasons to follow — it will mean almost nothing.
Even the media coverage feels retro. Reporters hunting down anyone with a Confederate Flag and putting them on TV — despite the fact that the flag came off the SC state house dome just months after the 2000 primary. Anchors back in the studios insisting that South Carolina is the Detroit of Dirty Politics, all but begging their reporters to produce a flier headlined “McCain’s Illegitimate Black Daughter Is A Tax-Raising, Pro-Choice Lesbian!”
The best the press has managed as of this writing is a ham-fisted push poll from Mike Huckabee supporters targeting Fred Thompson.
Whether or not our nation’s screwy primary system is fixed in future election years, as many of us pray, the Palmetto State’s days of GOP glory are gone.
Florida is the new South Carolina.
Florida is the first level playing field of the 2008 GOP primaries. Iowa caucuses are like heaven (pardon the pun) to evangelicals; McCain was the unofficial “president of New Hampshire” and Mitt was a Michigan home boy.
South Carolina could have been a bellwether state yet again, but McCain simply has too much history there, and the conservative majority is far too divided. Florida will be the Rorschach Test of Republicans this year. Will it be a left-leaning mod like McCain or Giuliani? Or a GOP traditionalist like Thompson, Romney, or (sort of) Huckabee?
South Carolina won’t tell you. After an unbroken run of predicting winners, South Carolina in 2008 won’t tell us anything at all.
What’s amazing isn’t that South Carolina has lost its place as the must-win Republican primary, but rather that it kept it so long. The “southern firewall” strategy began as a one-time stunt, cooked up by then-Congressman Carroll Campbell and his political partner Lee Atwater to help Ronald Reagan in 1980. Before 1980, South Carolina picked presidential delegates at a convention, controlled at the time by Strom Thurmond. Thurmond supported John “The $11 Million Delegate” Connally, and the primary injected something rarely seen in South Carolina politics back in the day: The will of the people.
But Reagan didn’t just win South Carolina’s handful of delegates. Because the vote was on the Saturday before Super Tuesday, Reagan’s victory dominated the front pages of Sunday papers across the country; was discussed with interest on the Sunday news shows; and led the network news that night. And because it took place on a weekend, there was almost no opportunity to other candidates to respond before the Tuesday vote.
”We calculated that winning the South Carolina primary was worth about 5 percentage points on Super Tuesday,” says S.C. political consultant and Atwater associate Rod Shealy. The results were so positive that, as the 1988 election approached, Shealy — then chairman of the SC GOP rules committee — and Atwater made the Saturday before Super Tuesday primary permanent.
Since then, Shealy brags (along with virtually every other S.C. Republican), the winner of the South Carolina primary has become the Republican nominee. Another South Carolina operative, McCain backer Charlie Black, is telling every reporter who’ll listen that “the candidate who wins New Hampshire and South Carolina has always gone on to win the nomination.”
Coincidence…or something more?
To begin with, Charlie Black’s inclusion of New Hampshire in that line up is misleading. The last time a Republican won both New Hampshire and South Carolina in a contested race was George H. W. Bush in 1988. And while it is true that every candidate to win South Carolina has won the nomination, it should be noted that every winner since Reagan has been named Bush or Dole.
In other words, in South Carolina, the Establishment candidate always wins. South Carolina doesn’t create the Establishment candidate. It merely anoints them.
Until this year.
Comparisons to South Carolina of 2000 are utterly useless, because eight years ago, South Carolina still had Carroll Campbell. The former governor had lost Lee Atwater to cancer in 1991, and in 1995 he had left the state to lobby for the American Council of Life Insurance. But the Campbell coalition was still alive, and he was still in command. When a clearly agitated Carroll Campbell poked me in the lapels soon after McCain’s 2000 win in New Hampshire and promised a victory for George W. Bush, I didn’t doubt him for a minute.
That was then. Today, there isn’t a Republican in South Carolina who can deliver the state. Gov. Mark Sanford is popular with voters, but the state’s Republican legislators loathe him for injecting his small-government libertarianism into local pork barrel politics.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, backing McCain again, is the local Republican conservatives love to hate. Graham’s senate seat was widely believed to be in real danger from a primary challenge by state treasurer Thomas Ravenel until last year, when Ravenel was conveniently (for Graham, anyway) forced from office by federal cocaine charges filed by the U.S. Attorney.
Sen. Jim DeMint is popular and perceived as a mainstream conservative, but he lacks any significant organization. His candidate, Mitt Romney, wrote off South Carolina to McCain earlier this week.
Which leaves conservatives without a consensus candidate, and John McCain all but guaranteed a victory. John Ellis correctly notes at RealClearPolitics.com that McCain is a weaker candidate than 2000 when it comes to raw vote totals, and that voters who supported George W. Bush in 2000 are thus far unenthusiastic about supporting McCain today.
Yes, there are lots of South Carolina Republicans who don’t like McCain. But there’s another trend in South Carolina, and that’s the deference to seniority. South Carolina Republicans often vote for candidates based on the “It’s his turn” theory, and McCain is the next Republican in line.
There’s also the lack of any consensus conservative candidate. Without a state GOP organization to anoint the Establishment choice, South Carolina voters are just as split as the rest of the Republican Nation.
And so on Saturday, John McCain will get about 1/3rd of the votes cast in the GOP primary — essentially what he received in New Hampshire and Michigan. And because South Carolina has open primaries, much of that vote will come from non-Republicans.
Meanwhile, the other 2/3rds of the vote will be split by Huckabee, Thompson, Romney, and, to lesser degrees, Giuliani and (thank you, Libertarians) Ron Paul.
Winner: John McCain.
McCain clearly doesn’t represent a majority of South Carolina Republicans, or Republicans anywhere, for that matter. McCain may eventually emerge as the Republican consensus candidate, but it won’t happen in South Carolina.
Instead of being the first state where the GOP’s natural conservative majority shapes the political field, South Carolina will be the final state of confusion, the last politically pointless stop on this wild 2008 ride.
To paraphrase Churchill, South Carolina is the end of the beginning. Florida will be the beginning of the end.
But don’t cry for South Carolina. Yes, it’s picked every GOP nominee since 1980, but it hasn’t picked a winner — a Republican who could actually win the popular vote — since 1988.
– Michael Graham is an NRO contributor.