George W. Bush staggered into South Carolina a dozen years ago, having lost the New Hampshire primary to Sen. John McCain, and rescued his presidential campaign by appealing to the basest instincts of the state’s social conservatives.
Publicly, Bush delivered a high-profile speech at Greenville’s Bob Jones University, which at the time prohibited interracial dating among students and which did not even admit unmarried African-Americans until the 1980s. Below the radar, a whispering campaign implied McCain had fathered a black child out of wedlock. (McCain had a dark-skinned adopted child from Bangladesh.) The strategy worked: Bush took the South Carolina primary and McCain, knocked off stride, never recovered.
Most of Mitt Romney’s opponents hoped to repeat the strategy, if not the tactics, to break his momentum in this year’s Republican race, but it does not seem to be working. Romney remains comfortably ahead in polls leading up to Saturday’s primary voting. Jon Huntsman’s withdrawal from the race, which came more or less as I expected, should tack a couple of extra percentage points onto Romney’s vote total.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and former congressman Newt Gingrich of neighboring Georgia divide the state’s traditional conservative vote, while Sen. Ron Paul’s libertarian message fails to gain the traction that it had in New Hampshire. So while Romney seems likely to get only about one-third of the GOP vote in South Carolina (a moderate drop from 39 percent in New Hampshire), it should be enough to keep him comfortably on top.
Most observers credit the split among social conservatives for Romney’s easy sail through South Carolina, but there is another factor at work: Today’s South Carolina is not the same place that sent George W. Bush to Bob Jones University, or that kept Strom Thurmond, a barely reformed segregationist, in the Senate for nearly a half-century until he died at age 100 in 2003.
Today’s South Carolina has a woman Republican governor, Nikki Haley, who was born in the state of Indian immigrant parents. She is a successful businesswoman, a graduate of Clemson University and a former Chamber of Commerce leader - the epitome of the South Carolina business establishment. She is also a strong Romney backer. She was raised a Sikh, became a Christian when she got married, and observes religious occasions of both cultures. The governor, who will turn 40 on Friday, is a highly visible symbol of her state’s evolution beyond the good-ol’-boy politics of Thurmond’s era.
South Carolina’s changes are also reflected in the census statistics collected between 2000 and 2010. Overall, the state’s population grew by 15 percent during the decade, but the growth is not evenly distributed.
Along the coast, counties like Horry (which contains Myrtle Beach) and Beaufort (home of Hilton Head Island) grew by 37 percent and 34 percent, respectively. Most of this growth came from well-to-do retirees and second-home buyers who converted to full-time residents. They generally arrived from someplace outside the Old Confederacy and have little connection to the state’s traditional politics. The coastal counties are home to a relatively moderate brand of Republicanism, and were McCain’s stronghold in the 2000 primary.
In the center of the state, Richland and Lexington counties grew by about 20 percent each. Richland is home to the state capital of Columbia, which also hosts the University of South Carolina. The region has a well-balanced economy built on government, the university and the military, thanks to the Army’s Fort Jackson and other bases in the region.
The state’s northern tier of counties is a growing manufacturing hub, bolstered by some retiree money finding its way to the Appalachian foothills, as well as some population spillover from Charlotte, N.C., to the northeast. Greenville County, home of Bob Jones University, grew by 19 percent in the decade. Spartanburg County logged a 12 percent increase; York County (near Charlotte) expanded by 37 percent; and recreation-based Oconee County also added 12 percent.
This is a region that counts on free trade, foreign investment and a general aversion to unionized labor for its prosperity. It is not the kind of place where Perry’s attack on Romney as a “vulture capitalist” is going to find much favor, because this is the kind of place that people like Romney like to send the work that they divert from higher-cost locales. Of course, attacking capitalists is not going to pay well among the prosperous retirees on the coast, either. It isn’t a big surprise that Perry and Gingrich’s attacks on Romney’s private equity record have not gained traction in places like these.
A dozen South Carolina counties lost population during the decade. These are places like Williamsburg (-7.5 percent) and Union (-3.1 percent), rural and off the beaten track. They are the bastions of old South Carolina politics, which had a strong populist streak. The anti-Romney messages might play better in such locales, but their role is diminished and diminishing further.
In the big picture of Republican politics, South Carolina is moving more toward the middle of the ideological spectrum. “Middle” is, of course, relative. The GOP overall is much more dominated by social conservatives than it was in the 1960s and 1970s. Nikki Haley, accordingly, goes out of her way to identify as a Christian and to promote her anti-abortion stance.
South Carolina is not likely to elect a moderate Republican like Huntsman any time soon, but neither is it a state where a struggling “conservative” can come to find succor in an insular and backward political culture. The world has moved on. One can argue that only South Carolina would have kept Strom Thurmond in the U.S. Senate in the 21st century, but Thurmond’s South Carolina no longer exists.