A 19th Century attorney general, James Petigru, said of his state: “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.” In the 21st Century, however, the cradle of the Confederacy has become a path to America’s presidency. The South Carolina primary has helped send four men to the White House in the past 40 years.
The bipartisan quartet includes: George H.W. Bush, who dispatched Sen. Bob Dole and Rev. Pat Robertson in 1988. The elder Bush was given a tailwind going into Super Tuesday; George W. Bush, who used the Palmetto State to arrest Sen. John McCain’s momentum coming out of the New Hampshire primary; Barack Obama, in 2008, who rode a tide of African Americans’ votes and support from younger voters to win the Democratic primary over Hillary Clinton; Joe Biden, a distant finisher in the 2016 Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, put away Sen. Bernie Sanders and the field in South Carolina.
Competitors were folding their tents in days after Biden’s win. No wonder Biden has bypassed New Hampshire and is going South to begin to kick off the 2024 primary season.
South Carolina is a Republican state, has been since Democratic Sen. Fritz Hollings retired two decades ago. Democrat-turned-Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond served to age 100, living long enough to grope then-rookie colleague Patty Murray in a Senate elevator.
Yet, South Carolina has a big African American population and a Democratic kingmaker in U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, a longtime member of the House Democratic leadership. He served as Biden’s rescuer and advocate four years ago, trusted by the state’s older voters.
The Republican electorate is highly conservative up country, with an island of moderates in Charleston. Not even massive Democratic spending could dislodge Sen. Lindsay Graham in his last reelection. Graham began the 2016 election season as an avid critic of Donald Trump. He has since become a Trump toady and golfing companion. Trump made a ham-handed phone call as president urging Georgia officials to “find” 11,800 votes to overturn Biden’s narrow win in the Peachtree state.
I tailed Pat Robertson as he stumped to appearances at upcountry courthouses in 1988. By lingering at every other appearance, I was able to talk with folks who stood with arms crossed at the rear of the crowd. Surprisingly, they thought of Rev. Pat as kooky and evinced a genuine belief in church-state separation. In a land that once produced such demagogues as “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, Bush was the safer choice.
The end result was Bush 48 percent, Dole 21 percent, Robertson trailing at 20 percent. The Bush campaign manager, Lee Atwater, strapped on his guitar and rocked far into the night, with reason. H.W. swept 16 of 17 states on Super Tuesday. The lone exception was Washington’s precinct caucuses, dominated by Robertson’s evangelical supporters.
South Carolina politics can be vicious, although the state’s long-kept secret was the daughter Thurmond sired as a young man with an African American employee of his family. He became a defender of white womanhood in Congress. In 2000, the Bush campaign spread salacious rumors about McCain’s adopted daughter. The 2016 primary saw Trump ridicule ex-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as a lazy underachiever. Even intervention by family matriarch Barbara Bush could not save his candidacy, and Jeb exited soon after a humiliating defeat.
Does Nikki Haley stand a chance in a state that twice elected her as governor? Not likely. The state’s political class has united behind Trump, led by her successor as Gov. Henry McMaster.
Still, the Palmetto State is changing and growing. Its textile mills have moved out and out of the country to places with lower labor costs. Auto manufacturers and Boeing have moved into north Charleston, where Boeing assembles planes, to increasing critical scrutiny.
Nikki Haley has a month to make her case, against what is already brutal pressure to drop out from the race. The state has hosted big, nasty Trump rallies. And Super Tuesday is just around the corner.