Turnout mixed statewide for SC presidential primary

jholleman@thestate.comJanuary 21, 2012 

A rainy Saturday appears to have curbed turnout in some areas but that did not halt a bit of primary-day political theater over dueling appearances at a Greenville restaurant among the race's front-runners.

Turnout was heavier than normal in some portions of Charleston, Calhoun, Georgetown, Greenville, Kershaw, Pickens, Richland, Saluda and York counties, the state election commission reported based on anecdotal responses from county elections offices.

Turnout was light in Allendale, Bamberg, Dillon, Hampton, Jasper, Newberry, Orangeburg, Union and Williamsburg counties, most of which lean Democratic.

While the primary-day rain might have impacted turnout, relatively dry periods were found everywhere in the state, according to the National Weather Service.

The Greenville-Spartanburg area started with a light rain until 11 a.m., then was swamped by .61 inches from 11 a.m. through 3 p.m. The rest of the day was dry in the Upstate.

In the Midlands, light rain began around 10 a.m., then .46 inches fell from 2-5 p.m. at Columbia Metropolitan Airport. Orangeburg got .43 inches between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. Rock Hill had a mist in the morning, got .36 inches from 1-3 p.m., then dried out.

Coastal areas dodged most of the rain.

Common wisdom is that the Upstate is a key area for Santorum and Gingrich, while the Lowcountry, which has less of a weather worry, is especially important for Romney.

A potential political storm was avoided this morning after Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney were both scheduled to arrive at Tommy’s Country Ham House in Greenville at 10:45 a.m.

Romney, who lost his lead in the polls this week to Gingrich, showed up nearly an hour early. He sounded like he expected to lose.

"We'd like to win here, of course, but we have a long way to go," he told the crowd. "So come join us in Florida, then in Nevada, Michigan, Colorado." Nevada holds caucuses Feb. 4, while Michigan and Colorado have primaries Feb. 7.

Romney stressed his business experience and criticized Obama. "If we think we need a Washington insider to run Washington there are a lot of people to choose from, but I’m the only guy whose spent his life in the real world — I’m going to fight to put America back to work,” he said.

Romney spent about 15 minutes at the ham house. He left before Gingich showed up.

When Gingrich appeared about a half hour after Romney left, he said, "I was hoping for a debate. Where's Mitt?"

He urged the crowd to reject "the arrogance and dishonesty of the Romney campaign," and stayed about 45 minutes.

Voters at Crayton Middle School in Columbia were treated to a visit by one of the Republican presidential candidates today.

Ron Paul made an appearance at the school and was accompanied by several family members. The Texas congressman spent about 15 minutes outside the school, talking with voters and posing for pictures.

Paul said he expected to finish third in today’s primary but added the campaign would continue its “steady progress” as it attempted to pick up delegates.

Rick Santorum's appearance at the Amick Ferry Fire Station in Chapin was delayed until 2:30 p.m. because of weather. He was supposed to appear at 11 a.m.

Two Santorum supporters, Elizabeth and Dan Stringer of Lexington, went to the fairly busy precinct to see the candidate. They were scolded by campaign workers for wearing buttons and carrying signs within 200 feet of the polling station, the distance required by law.

"He is God's David fighting Goliath and today we are fighting good versus evil," Elizabeth Stringer said about Santorum and the state's primary.

Many voters said the two S.C. debates held in Myrtle Beach and Charleston in the last week before the primary were game changers, convincing South Carolina that Gingrich could take the fight to President Barack Obama in November – and simultaneously pound the media.

At Thursday’s debate in Charleston, Gingrich gave a fierce dressing-down to CNN moderator John King who asked about claims lobbed by Gingrich’s ex wife that the former speaker of the House wanted an open marriage.

“One of the worst things in this country is the media,” said Steve Chase, 61, of Chapin who cast a vote for Gingrich Saturday. “They have an agenda. And (Gingrich) is the only one, probably since Reagan, who stands up to them.”

Gingrich’s three marriages and admissions of affairs made no shred of difference to many voters including Rema Thomas, 60, of Chapin, an evangelical who decided on Gingrich after watching the two S.C. debates.

“No one does not have baggage. Newt’s was just exposed more because of his time in politics,” she said. “I think it’s time for a bulldog president. Grab ‘em by the pants leg and don’t let go until you draw blood. That’s Newt.”

Meanwhile, Romney, whose S.C. campaign was well-funded, spent much on automatic calls to S.C. voters.

The strategy appeared to have back-fired.

“They’ve called me 10 times per day since New Hampshire,” Chase said. “You don’t make people angry who you want to vote for you, and they made me more than angry. It was harassment.”

Gingrich’s fiery personality turned off many Romney voters.

“I’m more interested in seeing the country work than someone preaching,” said Stanley Dubinsky, 59, of Columbia, who cast his vote for the former Massachusetts governor.

“I’m tired of the extreme on both sides. I’m not a Tea Partier and I’m not an Occupier,” said Dubinsky who did not watch the debates. “The diminishment of the middle, the independent voters have created this partisan political environment where very little is getting done.”

Voting never goes without a hitch, and there were plenty Saturday.

As happens during most primaries, some precincts were combined, either to save money or because the traditional voting locations were not available. Those changes were listed on county elections web sites. In most cases, signs also were posted at the normal location, directing voters to the combined precinct polling place.

But no sign was posted early Saturday at the Cooper precinct in Richland County, which usually votes at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church but was combined with Trenholm Road precinct at Trenholm Road Baptist Church.

Some voters pulled up to St. Michael’s and left. Voter Christina Knauss said a poll worker at Trenholm Road Baptist eventually went to St. Michael’s and put up a small sign, but even that probably wouldn’t have been seen by a handicapped voter used to voting at curbside.

In Blythewood, Kevin Wyatt was surprised when the person checking his name against the voter registration list gave him a slip of plain white paper with “OK, JM” written on it. He then went to a different line to wait for a voting booth to open up.

“What would prevent someone from going to the back of the voting line with a blank piece of paper and pen and voting over and over again?” Wyatt asked.

Kimberly Riddle, who had moved from Lexington County to Richland County since last voting, wasn’t allowed to vote. She hadn’t filled out a form the county election commission was supposed to have mailed to her after she filed the change of address information with the S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles. She said she never received the form in the mail.

“If this had been taxes, I’d have gotten 17 notices,” Riddle said.

She planned to head to the Richland County elections office on Monday to make sure she could vote in the next election.

In Newberry County. none of the three electronic voting machines at the Midway precinct were working when the polls opened, and Randy Waddell of Prosperity was frustrated that he had to vote using a paper ballot.

“It’s ludicrous that we’re still voting with a crayon and a piece of paper,” said Waddell, who said only one of the three machines worked the last time he voted. “If South Carolina can’t afford decent voting machines, we ought to give up on the election business.”

At 9:30 a.m., Brenda Rogers, director of elections in Newberry County, said technicians had the machines up and running at Midway, which is at Mid-Carolina Middle School.

Poll workers showed up at the Westchester voting precinct in Charleston only to find the doors locked, and voters couldn't get into the building at the West View Baptist precinct in Spartanburg because of a natural gas leak.

Election officials called those sorts of hiccups typical for an election with more than 2,100 precincts throughout the state.

In both cases, the poll managers set up outside the buildings and used emergency paper ballots until someone could arrive to unlock the building in Charleston and until natural gas company workers could find and fix the leak in Spartanburg, said state elections commission spokesman Chris Whitmire.

Charleston officials reported that only three voters had to use paper ballots at the Westchester precinct before the doors were unlocked.

Party affiliation isn’t required to vote, and there’s no Democratic primary this year, it appears some Democrats simply want to register an opinion.

Around noon, 191 people had voted at Caughman Road Elementary in Richland County. That's a strikingly large number considering only 236 voted at that traditionally Democratic precinct in the 2008 Republican presidential primary.

At Dent Middle School, another traditionally Democratic precinct, 31 people had voted around noon, compared to 37 in the entire day in 2008. Nearby Polo Road precint had 400 voters by 10:30 a.m., compared to 489 in 2008.

At many other precincts, the turnout has been similar to 2008 hours before polls close.

By 11:30 a.m., vote totals were at 300 at Saxe Gotha Presbyterian in Lexington County and 169 at Cooper, 136 at Trenholm Road, 94 at Keenan and 74 at Shandon Fire Department in Richland County. All of those are about half of the totals for the 2008 Republican primary turnout.

Lexington County’s Saluda River Baptist, with 265 votes by around noon, is one of the Republican stronghold with heavier turnout than 2008, when 385 voted the entire day.

In Republican-dominated Lexington County home of S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley, a dozen people were in line at the Cromer precinct when the polls opened. Poll workers needed more time to explain to each voter how to work the electronic machines than it took for the voters to cast their ballots.

Paper signs on the booths indicated which of the nine candidates on the ballot already had dropped out of the race. One, apparently made early in the week, listed Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Jon Huntsman. A second sign added the name of Rick Perry, who dropped out late in the week.

The McClatchy Washington bureau, Andrew Shain, Noelle Phillips and Sean Creeden contributed to this report

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