As May rolls around, we are now only a month away from the party primaries in South Carolina: June 12, 2018 will see voters from across the state flock to the polls.
Actually, that last line was a bit sarcastic, as voter turnout is anemic in party primaries in the Palmetto State. In 2016, turnout in the South Carolina Democratic primary was five percent; it was only 4.6 percent in 2014. Meanwhile, the Republicans were setting the woods on fire, comparatively speaking, with 8.6 percent turnout in 2016 and 11.3 percent in 2014. As is the case across the nation, voters who cast a ballot in the party primaries are more ideological than the average voter. For the Democrats, their supporters are more liberal and the Republican primaries draw voters who are more conservative. By the time we get to November, the rest of the electorate who choose to cast ballots are left with the choice between candidates who often are farther to either extreme than the voters themselves are. For my third party friends — yes, I am throwing all other parties under the bus.
As we approach the 2018 election cycle, a little analysis from previous elections is in order to understand the current environment. Though S.C. was once an overwhelmingly Democratic state, those days have gone the way of the landline. Since the late 1990s, the Republicans hold the distinct advantage in the state. The GOP has controlled the state’s House of Representatives continuously since 1995, while they have enjoyed uninterrupted control of the state Senate since 2001. The last time a Democrat lived in the governor’s mansion was in early 2003, when Jim Hodges vacated the premises for Mark Sanford. Since the mid 1990s, the GOP has held a majority of U.S. House seats other that Speaker Pelosi’s four years during the end of the Bush years and the start of the Obama presidency. In a trend that is commonplace across the Deep South, no white Democrats currently represent any S.C. congressional district. The GOP has held complete control of both of the states U.S. Senate seats since 2005 and neither Democratic nor Republican nominees have given the state much attention in the general election cycle since the days of John F. Kennedy.
Election returns during the past decade reveal the following pattern. Republicans can count on 23 counties in the state, while Democratic bastions have been reduced to 16 counties. Seven counties are swing counties that can go for either party, though from 2010-2016, they were trending Republican more often than Democratic. Republican strongholds have the most diversity in terms of urban, suburban and rural counties. Democrats are now reduced to a coalition of very rural counties with high black populations and two urban counties — Charleston and Richland. Charleston County is not an absolute washout for Republicans, where the GOP regularly wins around 44-46 percent of the vote. However, Democrats hold an overwhelming majority in Columbia and Richland County.
Though the odds look overwhelmingly in favor of the Republicans, Democrats can take consolation in the fact that Republican strength may have reached its zenith in terms of the sheer number of counties they are likely to win. In addition, Democrats are hoping that migration to the coastal areas, as well as the Greenville and Charlotte areas, might have a more moderating influence upon Republican strength in those areas. However, the reality is that some Republican counties, some of which were Democratic counties 15 years ago, are becoming crimson in terms of their Republican support. The most Republican county in the state is Pickens, where Republicans won nearly 75 percent of the vote in 2016. The strongest county for Democrats is Orangeburg County, where Democrats hold a 75-25 percent advantage. Bad news for the Democrats though: Orangeburg has been losing population during the last two decades like many other rural counties where Democrats enjoy strong support.
In terms of the upcoming party primaries, the other dynamic at play is who votes in the various primaries. For Democrats, the two most loyal groups of voters are black citizens and females voters. The average for the last two election cycles was that black South Carolinians constitute 65 percent of the Democratic turnout in primaries, while females account for approximately 60 percent of the primary ballots cast. White voters make up an overwhelming 98 percent of Republican primary turnout since 2014, while female voters are 51 percent.
So, what does all this mean? If you want to know who is ahead as we go into the early summer, look at previous turnout in the party primaries. For Democrats, the likelihood is that whoever the gubernational nominee is that they will be more liberal, or at least take such issue positions, than average due to the constituency of the Democratic primary. As one example of this, Democratic candidate, Marguerite Willis of Florence recently started running a television ad calling President Trump “a horrible racist” and went onto use the word “racist” six times in the 30-second spot. Initially, this might strike some as odd — perhaps because President Trump is not running for office or that the word racist is used so often in the ad. However, one can argue that Willis’s campaign has done their homework on knowing who votes in the Democratic primary. You can’t compete in November without the nomination.
For Republicans, the big drama will be whether Governor McMaster escapes a runoff. If not, who will be his runoff competition? Time will tell as Governor McMaster attempts to remind voters constantly of his support for Donald Trump. For that matter, Catherine Templeton is attempting the same. Why, might you ask? Despite his polarizing nature, Donald Trump remains one of the most popular politicians in the Palmetto State. Whoever emerges with the Republican nomination is likely to be invoking President Trump’s name loudly and often.
In next month’s column, we’ll take a closer look at the upcoming state elections. Hopefully, this column illustrates the importance of voting in primaries. With such low primary turnout, candidates of neither party have much incentive to go to the middle. Indeed, failure to stake out a solid position will lose you support in the primary. Turnout is important in all elections, including primaries. Don’t say that I didn’t warn you …
Dr. Scott Buchanan is a professor of political science at The Citadel. His research focuses on Southern politics.