When Donald Trump moves into the Oval Office in January, he can thank South Carolina for more than just its nine electoral votes.
The Palmetto State reclaimed its role this year as a Republican kingmaker, giving the wild-card candidate a crucial primary victory in February. South Carolinians then stuck with Trump through his myriad of political stumbles, all the way to November.
“South Carolina showed that he wasn’t a fluke,” Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said.
South Carolina’s “First in the South” GOP primary has a near-sterling record of picking the eventual GOP nominee, in part because of its broad and diverse Republican electorate.
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“South Carolina is seen as a state where every streak of Republicanism and every streak of conservativism is represented,” Huffmon said.
The lone exception to the S.C. GOP’s perfect record of picking their party’s nominee was four years ago, when former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich rode the momentum from two solid debate performances to an S.C. primary victory.
After his S.C. primary win, Gingrich won just one other primary — in his home state of Georgia — and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney became the eventual GOP nominee.
By the time the S.C. Republican Primary rolled around in February, Trump had shocked pundits and a crowded field of GOP competitors with a second-place finish in Iowa’s primary and then a victory in New Hampshire’s contest. But questions lingered around the celebrity businessman’s campaign.
“Is he a for-real candidate?” asked Scott Buchanan, a political scientist at The Citadel. “He wins New Hampshire, and then the next question is: ‘Can he win in the South?’ ”
That’s a critical question for GOP contenders to answer. In today’s political climate, Republican presidential candidates must sweep virtually every Southern and Midwestern state to reach 270 Electoral College votes.
Republicans who cannot court Southern voters need not continue. South Carolina offered Trump his first litmus test, and the billionaire businessman passed with flying colors.
The New York real estate mogul crisscrossed the Palmetto State, promising its residents he would keep them safe from terrorists and the Islamic State while tapping into their anger at ineffective politicians.
He won South Carolina’s 50 GOP delegates with more than 32 percent of the vote, then won Nevada three days later with more than 45 percent of the vote.
A week after that, Trump won seven of the 11 Super Tuesday primaries, eventually sweeping the Deep South from Virginia to Louisiana.
“Him winning here gave him the hard imprimatur of legitimacy,” Winthrop’s Huffmon said. “The outline began in New Hampshire, but I wouldn’t say it was solidified in New Hampshire.”
If S.C. voters gave Trump his wings, they also stuck by him through every blunder – vulgar videos, sexual assault allegations and rocky debate performances.
Despite not campaigning in the state since winning its primary in February, Trump easily defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton here to secure nine crucial electoral votes in a tight election.
“Trump tapped into the people who have just had enough,” said Walter Whetsell, a Lexington GOP consultant. “They are willing to overlook a whole bunch of stuff because they believe Washington is corrupt. To some extent, to those same voters, Hillary Clinton is the living, breathing example of what people dislike most about Washington.”