The SC presidential primary matters for several reasons. Since this is the GOP debate, we’ll focus on why the SC Republican presidential primary matters. Let’s start with the fact that we have the first in the South presidential primary. Now, let’s add the fact that the type of candidate who can win with SC Republicans tends to be the type of candidate who will resonate with conservatives in the South.
There we are, back at “the South” again. The SC Republican primary matters because it’s the first in the South and it’s a test of who southern conservatives will support. Well, why is the South so important in presidential politics? I’m glad you asked.
Historically (and through to current times) the south is the most ideologically and political cohesive region in the country. As of the election of 2012, the South (defined as the traditional 11 state South: AL, AR, FL, GA, LA, MS, NC, SC, TN, TX, and VA) will be home to 160 electoral college votes. This wouldn’t matter were it not for the historical cohesiveness of the region.
Most students of history are familiar with the Solid South. This was the era in the South beginning (roughly) after the end of Reconstruction when conservative whites were Democrats, Republicans were virtually non-existent, and African Americans didn’t politically matter because all southern states had bent over backward to make sure they were disenfranchised. In this era of Jim Crow, the white Democratic party of the South pledged its electoral fealty to the national party as long as they would be left alone on racial matters. They also had the power within the Democratic Party to make sure the party never nominated a presidential candidate who would threaten their status quo. Until 1936, the national Democratic Party had a “two-thirds” rule for nominating a presidential candidate. If a candidate arose who might threaten the racial status quo, the South, with nearly 30% of the convention delegates, needed only to find a few delegates from outside the South to block his nomination. Any candidate who was serious about getting the nomination would have to abide by the South’s “conditions.”
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After the demise of the two-thirds rule, the influence of the South within the Democratic Party began to wane. This was painfully evident in 1948 when the national Democratic Party added a civil rights plank to the party platform. The southern delegates, led by South Carolina’s own Strom Thurmond, walked out of the convention. They held their own convention, as the States’ Rights Democrats (better known as the Dixiecrats) shortly thereafter and nominated Strom Thurmond as their presidential candidate and Mississippi’s Fielding Wright as the vice presidential candidate. The Dixiecrats’ goal wasn’t so much to win as to deny anyone an outright victory in the electoral college (assuming Thurmond & Wright swept the South). This would throw the election to the House of Representatives where Truman would win, but only by giving in to the South on racial matters. Thurmond and Wright won only four southern states and the South would never TRULY be solid for the Democratic Party again.
In the 1950’s General Eisenhower, who famously rose when the band played Dixie on a visit to South Carolina, was able to pick up some southern states giving the Republicans the White House until 1960 (even in 1960, three southern states went for Nixon). After the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, presidential politics in the South would never be the same. Conservative whites in the South would no longer consistently support the national Democratic Party – which was becoming “the civil rights party.” The entire Deep South went for states’ rights advocate Barry Goldwater in 1964. In 1968, Texas was the only southern state to support the Democratic presidential candidate. From this point forward, no Democratic presidential candidate would win unless he substantially cracked the South and any Republican candidate who swept the South would land in the White House.
So, a cohesive Democratic South was vital to Democratic control of the White House in the pre-civil rights era and, in the modern era, whenever the South has been cohesively Republican in presidential politics, the Republican wins the White House.
Here’s where it gets interesting BECAUSE of that cohesion. The South’s 160 electoral college votes represent 29.74% of all (538) electoral college votes. To become president, a candidate must win 270 electoral college votes. Therefore, the South, as a region, contains 59.26% of the total number of electoral college votes needed to become president. If a candidate sweeps the South, he or she would need only 29.1% of the remaining electoral college votes in the ENTIRE country to become president. In short, the South, as a region, MATTERS!
.and SC has the first in the South primary. So far, the brand of conservatism in the SC Republican Party has been an excellent gauge of the type of conservatism a candidate must appeal to in order to win the nomination. Since the state party went to primaries in 1980, the winner of the SC Republican primary has gone on to win the party nomination.
The first time we have a primary where that is NOT the case, the luster of our star will fade a bit. However, the SC primary will remain vitally important even then.
On the other side of the aisle, the SC Democratic presidential primary (when there is one) is vitally important as well. First, as mentioned above, in the modern era, a Democratic candidate who can “crack” the South can win the White House. Second, and more importantly, African Americans can account for up to 50% of the SC Democratic presidential primary vote making our state’s Democratic primary the first real test in the presidential campaign cycle of African American support. African Americans, 90% or more of whom consistently support the Democratic party, are a VITAL part of a winning electoral constituency for any Democrat.
But that’s a post for another day.