South Carolina is where the 2016 presidential races are expected to come into better focus after a jumbled start in Iowa and New Hampshire.
For Democrats, supporters of front-runner Hillary Clinton see South Carolina as the firewall to stop U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who nearly beat the former secretary of state in Iowa and defeated her Tuesday in New Hampshire.
Among Republicans, New York billionaire developer Donald Trump, the national front-runner, is coming off a win Tuesday in New Hampshire, following U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s victory in the Iowa caucuses.
Trump and Cruz are atop the S.C. polls — good news for voters who want a candidate promising to tear down almost everything in Washington.
But some in the GOP establishment fear Trump and Cruz will turn off minority, younger and female voters in the general election. The anti-Trump, anti-Cruz establishment still is looking for its best candidate among former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
Furman University political scientist Danielle Vinson sees two different races: “Those fighting for Trump and Cruz who say, ‘We want an outsider,’ versus everyone else who wants a practical candidate who can beat Hillary Clinton and won’t embarrass you along the way.”
Starting with Ronald Reagan in 1980, S.C. Republicans had a streak of choosing the eventual GOP presidential nominee. That record was broken in 2012, when S.C. voters chose former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich over Mitt Romney.
This year, seven Republicans hopefuls already have announced plans to campaign in South Carolina, including more than 40 events ahead of the party’s Feb. 20 primary.
Trump has ruled S.C. GOP polls since the summer, drawing well from moderates to evangelicals, much to the surprise of pundits. The real estate mogul regularly draws thousands to rallies across the state.
“I have never seen anything like that for any other candidate,” Lexington County GOP chairman Craig Caldwell said. “A lot of people are fed up with national politics, but there’s an entertainment factor.”
Still, Trump cannot afford to come in second in South Carolina, a race where he is forecast to win, Vinson said.
Cruz appears to be in the best position to pull off an S.C. upset, using the same operation to target his base of evangelical Christian and social conservative voters that worked in Iowa.
“This should be natural territory for him,” Furman’s Vinson said. “If he can’t win here, he will have tough time going forward.”
Rubio sits third in South Carolina just ahead of Bush. His campaign has bolstered its S.C. staff as part of a late push and won key endorsements from U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of North Charleston and U.S Rep. Trey Gowdy of Spartanburg.
Caldwell, who has not endorsed a candidate, said Rubio and Cruz have among the strongest ground games in his county, which has the state’s second-largest number of Republican voters.
However, the story in New Hampshire was how Rubio’s opponents, especially those in the establishment, hit the one-term U.S. senator repeatedly over his lack of experience.
“I don’t think South Carolina will decide anything for Republicans,” Vinson said. “It’s more of a race whether it salvages Rubio or makes those concerns linger longer.”
Bush will make a stand in South Carolina, where his father and brother won primaries en route to the White House. The Bush campaign, entrenched in the state for months, will double its number of S.C. staff and consultants after New Hampshire.
Kasich is trying to make some inroads in South Carolina. But the governor never has received more than 4 percent of support in S.C. polls.
Retired Maryland neurosurgeon Ben Carson has raised the most money in the Palmetto State among active candidates, but he has slid to fifth from second — mimicking his results nationally.
For Democrats, South Carolina is the first primary state where most voters will be minorities.
That’s a huge break for Clinton since S.C. African-Americans overwhelmingly support her. She has worked hard to win over black support after her loss in the 2008 S.C. primary to Barack Obama.
The Palmetto State could start a cascade of wins for the former senator and first lady, who visits South Carolina Friday.
Democrats have a Feb. 20 caucus in Nevada, before their Feb. 27 S.C. primary.
“South Carolina has the potential to provide clarity for Democrats,” Vinson said. “This is probably the beginning of the end for Bernie.”
Sanders’ positioning as a democratic socialist will not play well in South Carolina, said Boyd Summers, a former Richland County Democratic party chairman who has not endorsed a candidate. “That will cause him a lot of pain.”
2016 SC polls
Latest S.C. presidential poll averages from Real Clear Politics
Christie, Kasich, Fiorina: 2%