A South Carolina Primary Primer

Robert Jeffrey

January 1, 2008

South Carolina politics is divided geographically and politically between the low country, the Midlands, and the upcountry, or the upstate as it is commonly called now. Michael Barone, in the Almanac of American Politics, says to think of the low country folk as Cavaliers and the upstaters as Roundheads, and you just about have it. Michael, as usual, is right. In the Midlands, where the state capital of Columbia is located, the two elements are mixed.

Despite its relative poverty (unlike in Georgia, the social and economic effects of defeat are still very evident here), South Carolina is a proud state, as proud as Texas I was surprised to discover after I came. You truly don’t see the reason for it with the eyes—it exists only in memory and character. People say the measure of this pride is that it’s the only southern state that doesn’t have Virginia envy. But there’s a difference between the pride of the Cavaliers and Roundheads. The pride of the upstaters is stubbornness; there is still something to prove. Almost all the Ron Paul supporters in the state are likely to be from up here! The pride of the low country is rooted in its tradition, in what it self-confidently is. Thus the upcountry’s conservatism is more restless, individualistic, and resistant to cultural change; whereas the low country’s conservatism is more communal and easygoing—and it is also less suspicious of money. The low country is more Presbyterian and Episcopalian; the upcountry more Methodist and Baptist. The low country was settled by English plantation aristocrats by sea. The upcountry was settled by hardscrabble Scotch-Irish through the Appalachian valleys to the north.

There are older and more traditional parts of the upcountry. The counties paralleling the Georgia border along the Savannah River were centers of Confederate sentiment and of resistance to the post-war Yankee occupation. John C. Calhoun, for example, was from this part of the upcountry, as well as Strom Thurmond. The upcountry had fewer slaves and smaller freeholds, and was dominated politically by the low country, a domination that lasted into the 20th Century. The upcountry’s political clout increased with the growth of the mill villages of the upper Piedmont in the 1920s, the first murmur of economic growth since the war. James F. Byrnes, though born in Charleston, thus made Spartanburg his political base and residence. The upstate has continued to be the area of the state with the most economic growth even after the death of the mills due to globalization, thanks to foreign manufacturing investment along the I-85 Corridor.

Population growth in the low country has been due mostly to retirees who have settled along the coast, predominantly around Beaufort and Hilton Head Island south of Charleston. Immigration to the state thus has worked to the advantage of the Republicans: military and other well-to-do retirees in the low country and Yankee professionals in the upcountry. Interestingly, most students here at Wofford, the best liberal arts college in the state, are still sons and daughters of the old South Carolina aristocracy and small-town gentry, and very few of them, even the most ambitious and gifted, contemplate leaving the state.

In today’s Republican South Carolina, around 40% of the Republican vote is in the upstate, most of it in Greenville and Spartanburg counties. It also has the largest percentage of the evangelical vote and the smallest percentage of the black vote in the state. Mitt Romney came here first more than two years ago, as part of his strategy to win over social conservatives. He also contributed much money to local and state party organizations and thereby corralled considerable support from local party officials, including the Chairman of the Spartanburg County Republican Party, who has asked Romney to speak at official party events on numerous occasions. But Romney never took off here, for the same reasons he’s hit a ceiling everywhere else. The word among many activists was that he was too smooth and robotic, and that played into the sense he was untrustworthy on the family issues. His poll numbers in the state remained in the single digits for most of the year. At last spring’s Spartanburg County Republican Convention, there was more support for Giuliani among activists than for Romney. In truth, however, the preferences of the social conservative base (Romney’s target) were split, weak, and in flux. After all the candidates spoke that day, Mike Huckabee actually won the straw vote due to a stellar speech, but the scuttlebutt afterwards was that he was not a serious candidate.

One word on Giuliani: There was a time last spring when I thought he was going to win the South Carolina Primary. He had tremendous support in the low country (almost all my fraternity students were for him), and there was much goodwill toward him among evangelicals in the upstate. Romney was stagnant and McCain treading water. Rudy’s confidence in his South Carolina gambit seemed to weaken when he decided not to refine his position on Roe v. Wade. (Who did he think he was going to lose to at that point?) After that, he paid less and less attention to the state and to the South as a whole. He never really tried to get to know the South, or he stopped trying to get to know the South, which was a big mistake (for those not in the know, the Florida peninsula is not the South).

What about John McCain? McCain had famously lost the state to Bush in the bitter 2000 primary election, losing big among self-identified Republicans, but he did have the endorsements of Mark Sanford (now the Governor) and Lindsey Graham (now the Senator). This time Graham put big-time pressure on all Republican state office holders to endorse McCain early on, and most did (Sanford has remained neutral). One of these officials told me at the time that he did so despite thinking that McCain had no chance of winning. McCain’s problem here is that he is too crotchety and irascible for the low country and too liberal for the upstate. And almost everyone I talked too said he was both too old and too unpredictable. Thus, despite the endorsements and support from many military retirees, he never rose above around 20% in the polls last year and sunk to low single digits after the immigration bill fiasco during the summer. Graham’s staffers were just devastated by the turn of events. They had looked on McCain early on as being the only possible nominee. “Who else is there?” one of them asked me the day of the Spartanburg County precinct straw poll. Another factor is that McCain in the end may not really be helped by his close association with Lindsey. Jokes abound among the base about Graham’s toadying to McCain, and Graham was booed lustily at the State Republican Convention last year, on the very day the immigration bill was introduced in the Senate.

Now we come to Huck and Fred, the southerners in the race. Conservatives here, as everywhere else, eagerly anticipated a possible Thompson solution to their dilemma and were disappointed with the actual Fred once he appeared. Thus it was a pleasant surprise to many when Huckabee rose to Christmas viability. Southerners are also familiar with unfair attacks on the South and southerners by establishment northerners, so the evident exasperation with which Wall Street and National Review types viewed the rise of Huckabee did nothing to put a damper on his increasing popularity down here. In truth, Thompson is probably more congenial than Huckabee to the not-so-religious old southerners around the state. But Thompson’s strategy of going nuclear on Huckabee in the last debate, and using canard after canard to do so, ran the risk of actually increasing the intensity of Huckabee’s support. Wouldn’t Fred have done better to go after McCain, for example, whose support in the state is probably less strong and whose conservatism is actually more suspect? At any rate, Thompson has little chance of winning simply by peeling off enough Huckabee supporters.

The endorsements of the two upstate congressmen are interesting to compare. Citadel graduate and small town businessman Gresham Barrett, who holds Lindsey Graham’s old seat in the western and southern part of the upstate—the Calhoun and Thurmond part—has endorsed Thompson. My Congressman, Bob Inglis, who represents more affluent Greenville and Spartanburg Counties, has endorsed Mike Huckabee. On the face of it, Inglis is not a cookie-cutter Huckabee type. He and his savvy and lovely wife both attended Duke, and Inglis got his law degree at UVA. He is a sort of bobo conservative who has entertained professors and journalists in his home to try to think Republican strategy outside the box and who has also been critical of Bush on the conduct of the war. He doesn’t use campaign consultants (his polisci major wife runs his campaigns and designs his media) and he was best known during his first stint in Congress for sleeping on an air mattress in his office. He is also not a Baptist or a Methodist. If Huckabee could attract more people like Inglis he would have a shot at the nomination.

So what is going to happen? South Carolina has a recent tradition of “deciding” the GOP nomination, and one reason is that since the days of Carroll Campbell and Lee Atwater the Republican base here has not really been rebellious (remember the stiff rejection of Buchanan, for Dole of all people, in 1996). The party establishment has decided who the winner is likely to be and rustled up enough people to vote for him. This is not going to happen this time in part because no one in fact knows who the winner is likely to be. After the loss of momentum in Michigan, McCain’s support is likely to sink to pre-New Hampshire levels, especially since the renewed unpredictability of the race leaves everyone free to vote as they will. Most of his votes will come from the low country and the midlands. On the other hand, Romney’s persistent viability and new economic focus could bring him more votes in the low country from former McCain and Giuliani supporters. Thompson and Huckabee will square off in the upcountry, with a Huckabee victory statewide contingent on his margin of victory there. South Carolina’s recent “tradition” of predicting the outcome of the pre-Convention nomination process could actually be continued with a result fractured among four more or less equal candidates and Rudy waiting to ambush them in Florida. If so, we would then be headed for an open convention and all that that entails. Of course, it’s always possible too that in the final days, South Carolina will revert to a semblance of its old follow-the-leader ways and give McCain a better-than-expected margin of victory thanks to the never-say-die Lindsey Graham.

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