The S.C. Republican presidential primary started as a party-building exercise in 1980.
To encourage conservative and disaffected Democrats to vote in the primary, the S.C. contest was established as an “open” primary, allowing any registered vote — Democrat, Republican or independent — to take part.
At the time, Republicans were a political minority in South Carolina. But the political tides of change already were shifting. While South Carolina voted for Jimmy Carter for president in 1976, the state never again has gone Democratic in a presidential election.
1980: S.C. breaks the tie
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Former U.S. Rep. George H.W. Bush won Iowa, and former California Gov. Ronald Reagan won New Hampshire. In their first-ever primary, S.C. voters got to break the GOP’s tie — a role that came to define the Palmetto State’s "first-in-the-South" primary.
At first, it looked like S.C. voters would complicate things by picking Texas Gov. John Connally, who had been endorsed by legendary U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond. But Reagan had a wild card: Lee Atwater.
The notorious political consultant from Columbia leaked a story that Connally was "trying to buy the black vote." It helped secure Reagan’s win — and, eventually, the nomination.
Reagan: 78,854, 55 percent
Connally: 43,040, 30 percent
Bush: 21,458, 15 percent
Howard Baker: 753, 1 percent
1988: The first Bush victory
Same story: U.S. Sen. Bob Dole won Iowa, and then-Vice President George H.W. Bush won New Hampshire.
The S.C. race again pitted the state’s senior senator against Reagan — this time the president’s vice president, George H.W,. Bush. Thurmond endorsed Kansas Sen. Dole; Bush, aided by Atwater, enlisted 1964 Republican nominee Barry Goldwater, a senator from Arizona, to give him a boost.
Bush won, easily.
Bush: 99,237, 50 percent
Dole: 40,950, 21 percent
Pat Robertson: 37,050, 19 percent
Jack Kemp: 21,450, 11 percent
1996: S.C. turns back Pat Buchanan
It was U.S. Sen. Bob Dole’s turn to be the nominee — the GOP likes primogeniture — but he almost lost to conservative commentator Pat Buchanan, backed by Spartanburg manufacturing giant and billionaire Roger Milliken.
After Kansan Dole won the Iowa caucuses, Buchanan surprised everyone by winning the New Hampshire primary. Buchanan’s America-first rhetoric appeared tailor-made for S.C. voters and many predicted an upset. But Republican Gov. Carroll Campbell vowed to deliver South Carolina for Dole and did.
Dole: 124,658, 45 percent
Buchanan: 81,256, 33 percent
Lamar Alexander: 29,199, 12 percent
Alan Keyes: 5,787, 2 percent
Dick Lugar: 1,024
Phil Gramm: 466
2000: The dirty primary
The 2000 primary earned South Carolina its reputation for dirty politics.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush was the favorite, having won Iowa and much of the Republican establishment. However, U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., won New Hampshire, and both campaigns hit South Carolina hard.
A rumor spread that McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child. In fact, McCain and his wife had adopted a child from Bangladesh. Bush’s ultimately successful campaign, led by Karl Rove, denied spreading the rumor or the equally specious ones that followed. Regardless, the damage was done.
Bush: 259,215, 54 percent
McCain: 198,643, 41 percent
Alan Keyes: 22,802, 5 percent
2008: Resurrecting John McCain
In 2008, S.C. GOP primary voters helped resurrect a candidate, one they had rejected just eight years earlier.
The presidential candidacy of U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona had been left for dead in mid-2007. Meanwhile, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee won Iowa and made a big push for S.C. evangelical voters. McCain surged to win New Hampshire, again giving S.C. primary voters a clear choice between McCain, the establishment Republican, and Huckabee, the upstart.
S.C. voters, as they had every time since 1980, narrowly choosing the establishment candidate.
McCain: 143,224, 33 percent
Huckabee: 128,908, 30 percent
Fred Thompson: 67,897, 16 percent
Mitt Romney: 64,970, 15 percent
Ron Paul: 15,773, 4 percent
Rudy Giuliani: 9,112, 2 percent
Duncan Hunter: 1,035
Tom Tancredo: 162
2012: South Carolina goes rogue
This 2012 will be remembered as the primary that ended South Carolina’s streak of choosing the eventual GOP presidential nominee.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the favorite in the race, had a tough time catching on with S.C. voters despite the endorsement of S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley.
Romney lost the Iowa caucus by 34 votes to former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa. But Romney rebounded to win New Hampshire.
S.C. Republicans gravitated first to Texas Gov. Rick Perry. But when his campaign foundered, Perry quit the race and, just days before the S.C. primary, endorsed former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. Propelled by strong, energetic performances in two debates in Myrtle Beach and Charleston, Gingrich went on to capture the state.
Gingrich: 244,065, 40 percent
Romney: 168,123, 28 percent
Rick Santorum: 102,475, 17 percent
Ron Paul: 78,360, 13 percent
Herman Cain: 6,338, 1 percent
Rick Perry: 2,534
Jon Huntsman: 1,173
Michele Bachmann: 491
Gary Johnson: 211