Friday, July 8, 2011

Who Will Win the South Carolina Primary in 2012?

In previous posts we examined the possible winners of the Iowa Caucus and the New Hampshire Primary. Today, we will look at the primary that has been won by the eventual Republican presidential nominee in every election since 1980: South Carolina.

South Carolina has a reputation for being receptive to conservative candidates, particularly socially conservative ones. Today, the struggle in the Republican Party is between those who align with the Tea Party movement, and those whom the Tea Party members label "RINOs." South Carolina would not seem like a great place to campaign if you're a moderate, establishment Republican. But as we saw in the history of both Iowa and New Hampshire, South Carolina frequently votes for such candidates.

The following is a list of the winners of the South Carolina Primary since it began in 1980. (Years with incumbent presidents have been excluded, since the incumbent president won each time almost automatically.)

South Carolina
1980 -- Ronald Reagan
1988 -- George Bush, Sr.
1996 -- Bob Dole
2000 -- George W. Bush
2008 -- John McCain

Unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, South Carolina is heavily influenced by who wins earlier contests. This means that it's not just South Carolina whose preferences matter, but also Iowa's and New Hampshire's. Winning one of the earlier contests will give a candidate a big boost, and failing to win either will diminish a candidate. It should be said that in 2008, McCain only barely defeated Huckabee. But Huckabee and McCain had both won a contest before South Carolina.

Where does that leave South Carolina? Early polling is even less help here. There have been few South Carolina polls so far; only one has been taken since Mike Huckabee left the race. None have been taken since Michele Bachmann entered the race. Even worse, no South Carolina poll can take into account the effect of the results of the Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire Primary.

Still, we can at least set forth some basic scenarios, as with did with the other early contests.

Scenario #1: United Party. A candidate emerges who can unite both the Tea Party and establishment wings of the Republican Party.

As before, this is the Chris Christie scenario. If he wins Iowa and either wins or does well in New Hampshire, he will easily go on to win South Carolina and the Republican nomination.

Scenario #2: Frontrunner Wins. Mitt Romney has the campaign infrastructure built up sufficiently to compete everywhere, and no one is able to knock him down.

If Romney wins Iowa and New Hampshire, he will win South Carolina. Though South Carolinians may not like him very much, it will be almost impossible for an anti-Romney candidate to lose Iowa and come back to win South Carolina.

Scenario #3: Electable Anti-Romney. A highly electable candidate who is perceived as being to the right of Romney wins Iowa, but doesn't do as well in New Hampshire.

If the winner of Iowa is perceived as being just as electable as Romney, but more conservative than him, then that candidate is likely to win South Carolina. Tim Pawlenty is the candidate most likely to fit this description (putting aside Christie, of the "United Party" scenario).

Scenario #4: Moderately Electable Anti-Romney. A candidate to the right of Romney wins Iowa, but there is some real doubt as to whether he will be able to defeat President Obama in the general election. Then Romney wins New Hampshire.

If Rick Perry enters the race, then this scenario is made for him. If it occurs, Perry will argue that he's the man with the true conservative credentials. Romney will argue that he's the more electable one. It will be an interesting test. Perry may be able to squeeze out a win, since South Carolina is more favorable turf for him. Then Romney will spin that he did "better than expected" in the Southern state.

Scenario #5: Unelectable Anti-Romney. A Tea Partier with little chance of winning the general election manages to win in Iowa, while Romney wins New Hampshire.

This would be Bachmann's or Herman Cain's scenario. Romney hopes that voters will put a high premium on electability. As history has shown, voters tend to do this. It's possible that an insurgent Tea Partier will win anyway, and again Romney will attempt to spin the results.