Slated for Saturday, January 21, the South Carolina “First in the South” Republican Presidential Primary is the third major stop in the road to the GOP nomination. In a contest known for mobilizing a half-million or more voters, the South Carolina primary has become known as a freewheeling contest where anything goes. Given this history, the fluid nature of its elections, and recent polling trends, South Carolina’s is a race that has been watched closely.
Since its inception in 1980, the South Carolina primary has been a key milestone on the path to the Republican nomination. While some candidates who won the earlier Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary have gone on to lose their nomination bids, each nominee since 1980 has won South Carolina. The state’s Republicans are proud of this “gatekeeper” role, as demonstrated by the “We Pick Presidents” bumper sticker the state GOP has distributed by the thousands, as well as the hundreds – and sometimes thousands – who turn out at events, even for lesser-known candidates.
Every election year, the race takes a major turn in South Carolina. Struggling candidates end up making the state’s primary their final stand and quit shortly thereafter while others tout successful showings as evidence their campaigns are gathering momentum. Those whose campaigns ended after South Carolina have included some political heavyweights, including Texas Governor John Connally (1980), 1996 GOP VP candidate Jack Kemp (1988), former Education Secretary and Senator Lamar Alexander (1996) and Senator Fred Thompson (2008). Both Bushes used strong showings in the state to recover after surprises in earlier contests.
But it’s not just the candidates who take the state seriously – the locals play hardball as well. Campaigns here are short, due to the short amount of time between other contests, and sometimes turn nasty. The all-out battle between George W. Bush and John McCain in 2000 is still talked about as the most negative ever seen in the state, with negative ads and dirty tricks being waged by both campaigns and their supporters by the truckload. These races are often characterized as battles between the state’s powerful GOP circles for whom the outcomes of these primaries give them leverage for in-state political battles, as well as helping them gain friends at the national level (assuming the nominees go on to win the White House).