South Carolina is thought to be fertile ground for religious conservative candidates. There’s good reason for many to think this, as polls always show that a vast majority of the Republican primary voters are self-professed evangelical Christians. So why did religious right favorites Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum lose the Palmetto State?
They lost because South Carolina’s primary electorate is in fact neatly balanced between the GOP’s four factions. Indeed, among the four carve out states it has the electorate that best mirrors the nation’s (see the table below). Iowa favors the religious very conservative, New Hampshire the moderate, and Nevada the secular very conservative favorite. The Palmetto State, in contrast, is where the party’s ballast, the somewhat conservative, first exerts his sway.
George W. Bush prevailed in his 2000 contest with John McCain because he won nearly 60 percent of the somewhat conservative vote, and McCain beat Huckabee because he topped the former Arkansas governor among this crucial group as well. Newt Gingrich toppled Mitt Romney on the backs of the GOP’s silent majority as well even as he ran only slightly ahead of Rick Santorum among the very conservative evangelicals.
The influence of religious conservatives is also limited by the surprisingly strong number of moderates and liberals in the electorate. This “left-wing” (by GOP standards) faction always cast at least thirty percent of the total vote, and as elsewhere they never favor the most overtly religious candidate.
Religious candidates are also hurt by South Carolina’s early ballot. The race is almost always still a multi-candidate affair at this point, as traditionally this has meant at least two of the remaining men are competing for the religious very conservative voter. Moderates and somewhat conservatives, in contrast, often have settled on one champion by this point.
These demographic facts mean that we could very well see a surprise when the votes are cast. If Trump and Carson fade but do not drop out, this will limit the appeal of another candidate with strong support among the two very conservative factions from consolidating support. It’s not likely, however, that more than one of the more establishmentarian candidates – Bush, Rubio, Kasich, Graham, and Christie – will survive the first two races. If there is only one candidate with strong appeal among somewhat conservatives making the trek south in late February, that man could rocket up in the polls as voters who supported the other, departed candidates look for a second choice.
Serious students of this race also know to look closely at the state’s political geography. South Carolina classically divides between a religious, very conservative “Up Country” (Greeneville, Spartanburg, and the other counties in the hilly Piedmont area) and a moderate, urbane, establishmentarian “Low Country” (Charleston and its environs, Myrtle Beach). Since South Carolina awards some delegates via a winner-take-all manner in each of the state’s seven Congressional Districts (three apiece), this means that even losers are likely to come home with some delegates. The fact that a large number of delegates are awarded winner-take-all to the statewide victor, however, means that this is a prize well worth winning.
The tables below include the bellwether, establishment, and religious conservative counties everyone should follow on election night.