COLUMBIA, SC Republican Mitt Romney cruised to victory in South Carolina as expected Tuesday, continuing the long tradition of South Carolina voting Republican.
The former Massachusetts governor was beating President Barack Obama by an almost 3-2 margin with 80 percent of precincts reporting.
“South Carolinians are practical people and Romney is a practical man. He’s a businessman,” said Curtis Loftis, Romney’s S.C. campaign chairman and state treasurer. “It was a natural fit.”
While the Palmetto State has voted red every presidential cycle starting in 1980, when Ronald Reagan claimed the state, it is not solid red through and through.
The proof is in the Midlands, where Richland County remains solidly blue and Lexington County solidly red — in large part because of demographic shifts.
Republican Romney took Lexington County Tuesday by nearly 34,000 votes with less than half of precincts reporting compared to GOP nominee John McCain taking it by nearly 42,000 votes just four years ago.
That fits with a trend that dates back to at least the 2000 president cycle of Lexington County voters preferring the Republican nominee by roughly the same or a larger margin than in the previous presidential cycle.
Meanwhile, the opposite is occurring in neighboring Richland, where voters are preferring the Democratic presidential nominee by larger and larger margins.
President Barack Obama was on his way to claiming the county Tuesday, keeping pace with 2008 when he won the county with a 48,000-vote margin of victory.
The results are quieted predictions that the Democratic base would not be as fired up for a second Obama term as it was in 2008.
Blue Richland County
The Democratic margin in Richland County has grown tremendously since the 2000 election.
Dick Harpootlian, chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party and a Richland resident, says the county is becoming bluer because of the types of people moving into Richland.
“It’s a much more educated, much more urbane constituency because of the university being here, because of state government,” Harpootlian said.
Adding to that Democratic margin is a growing number of African-Americans, the most loyal Democratic voters.
Nearly 46 percent of Richland County residents are African-Americans, according to 2010 Census data, compared to 28 percent of the overall state. That is up slightly from the 2000 Census when 45 percent of Richland County was African-American.
A growing awareness among voters that they can cast ballots early is also helping. Traditionally, early voting favors Democrats. (While South Carolina does not have true early voting, its residents increasingly use absentee voting as if it were early voting.)
In 2008, Richland County set a record in 2008 for the number of people who cast ballots before Election Day. Tuesday, the county shattered that record although no final number is in yet.
Red Lexington County
Meanwhile, neighboring Lexington County is a GOP stronghold for now.
It continues to attract white, suburban residents from surrounding counties and out of state, residents who are more likely to vote Republican, said Walt Whetsell, a Republican political consultant.
“Lexington County is getting more Republican because it’s growing very quickly,” Whetsell said. “You have these suburban-type folks who are looking for good schools and lower crime. They want to live near (Lake Murray) and they want all of the other attributes of a vibrant suburban community. So that’s to Lexington’s benefit.”
Census data shows Lexington County has experienced a population boom, growing by 21 percent to more than 262,000 residents between 2000 and 2010.
Its demographics have shifted slightly with the number of whites dropping by 5 percentage points and the number of African-Americans growing by 2 percentage points.
The biggest surprise is the county’s booming Hispanic population, which has grown to nearly 5 percent, according to census data, up from just 2 percent in 2000.
That growth is convincing Democrats they can grow their Lexington County presence. Like African Americans, Hispanic voters traditionally vote Democratic.
“You have a growing number of Hispanics who are not yet registered but who will become registered,” Harpootlian said.
“The notion that the Republicans are going to cede the Hispanic vote is a fallacy,” he said. “They’re going to fight hard for it,” he said.
Reach Smith at (803) 771-8658.