No South Carolina Embrace of McCain

Robert Jeffrey

January 1, 2008

John McCain was very lucky to win the South Carolina Republican Primary. He won it because the conservative vote was split, because key competitors for the less socially conservative Republican and Independent vote abandoned their campaigns in the state, and he won in spite of the fact that both his total vote and share of the total vote was much less than it was in the 2000 Primary, when he was defeated by George W. Bush.

In that 2000 Primary, McCain received 238,000 votes and 42% of the vote, compared to 139,000 and 33% this year—a whopping 100,000 votes fewer and 9 percentage points less. Even accounting for the lower turnout this year, 418,000 compared to 565,000 in 2000, McCain still substantially underperformed this time compared to his losing effort eight years ago.

It is true that in some of the affluent low country counties McCain exceeded percentage-wise his statewide performance in 2000. For example, in both Charleston and Beaufort counties this year, he received 44% of the vote. However, Romney came in second in those two counties (with 19 and 23% respectively), suggesting to me that Romney’s very public pulling out of South Carolina increased McCain’s margin there in the last days of the campaign. By the way, the pattern in the low country counties was by and large evident statewide: The Romney vote tended to dissipate and the Giuliani vote was almost completely absent. For example, in upstate Spartanburg County, where Romney had the support of the party apparatus and had made umpteen appearances, and where Giuliani had at one time had substantial support, they ended up with 13 and 2% respectively.

But now we come to the Fred Thompson factor and the split of the conservative Republican vote. Statewide, Thompson received 68,000 votes. If only one quarter of Thompson’s total vote had gone to Mike Huckabee, Huck would have overcome McCain’s 14,000 vote margin of victory by 3,000 votes.

But an even better way to look at the Thompson factor is to focus just on the upcountry counties, where one finds most of South Carolina’s very conservative and socially conservative voters. In Greenville and Spartanburg counties, Thompson received 21 and 20% of the vote respectively (as opposed to 12 and 9% in Charleston and Beaufort counties for example). He received 23% in York County (the Rock Hill area just south of Charlotte). If but half of the Thompson vote in only Greenville, Spartanburg, York, Anderson, and Pickens counties had gone to Huckabee, Huck again would have defeated McCain statewide.

Huckabee did, as anticipated, win almost all the upstate counties and also the less populated counties in the so-called Pee-Dee (for the Pee-Dee River) in the northeastern part of the state. But his margins of victory over McCain were much less than I had expected—only 1500 votes in Greenville County and 2100 in Spartanburg County. Thompson, in the end, severely restricted Huckabee’s opportunity to expand his base vote by offering a more subdued and less challenging brand of southern conservatism. I underestimated the effect that Thompson’s criticisms of Huckabee would have on Huck’s margins, particularly in the more religious upstate.

True enough, some of that Thompson vote might have reflected Huckabee’s weaknesses, or at least the effects of establishment conservative weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth about Huck, but political logic and anecdotal evidence confirm the fact that many upstaters were just simply torn between Thompson and Huckabee even as they went in to the voting booth. The Greenville News recounted stories of voters who said they would like to vote for both Huck and Fred. That, to me, says it all.

One cannot, of course, detract from John McCain’s victory here. He won. And it may be that he is the best candidate in the end, and that he is the only one that would offer Huck the vice-presidency! My point is only to suggest caution in interpreting South Carolina’s significance for McCain’s chances of securing the nomination. He has shown no inclination so far to take Bill Kristol’s advice and smoke’em peace pipes with conservatives like Rush Limbaugh. And he probably shouldn’t—it would certainly be out of character. It could be, as Robert Novak opined, that Republicans will revert to their usual ways of the last 50 years and just decide to all agree on the warrior. But my gut tells me we’re not there yet, that McCain still has to demonstrate he can win a larger share of the conservative vote. Otherwise, I do see an opening for Romney, especially as the states in the Midwest and the West, and maybe New England too, have their say. And Huckabee will hang in too, and probably do well in states like Georgia and Texas, just to name a couple. And maybe Rudy too, who knows?

Robert Jeffrey is a Professor of Government at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.