Republican Gov. Nikki Haley has the edge in her November rematch against Democratic challenger Vincent Sheheen, a panel of S.C. political scientists said Thursday.
But the state senator from Camden could pull off an upset by getting a large turnout of his supporters, the experts added.
Two of the five political scientists at a University of South Carolina forum offered predictions on the race – both forecasting a 10-percentage point win for Haley. The governor, a former Lexington County Republican legislator, beat Sheheen by 4.5 percentage points in their 2010 race.
To win, Sheheen has to convince voters that the state’s economy has not improved under Haley, said Scott Huffmon, a political scientist at Winthrop University. But more than half of South Carolinians in Winthrop’s latest poll said the state’s fortunes were improving, Huffmon added.
“That’s a two-step proposition. And in politics, if you’re explaining, you’re losing,” he said.
However, Clemson University political scientist David Woodard thinks the economy could pose a problem for Republican Haley. Personal income in South Carolina has stagnated compared with other states. And, like her predecessor Mark Sanford, Haley has little use for using public resources to bolster the state’s economy, he said.
“We’ll have a caretaker government,” said Woodard, who started a group that questioned Haley’s transparency during the 2010 race.
Boasting less public activity than Haley and with less money, Sheheen has worked behind the scenes to make sure Democratic voters go to the polls in November, Winthrop’s Huffmon said. The stakes are large. Sheheen would have beaten Haley in 2010 if Democrats had come out in the same numbers as during the 2008 presidential election, he said.
“There is not much of a middle to turn out,” Huffmon said. “So you have to get out the base.”
Woodard, who taught Sheheen as an undergraduate, was more blunt about the senator’s chances: “Vincent Sheheen is a great candidate. He just has the wrong letter after his name. He’d be a superstar (in the GOP).”
Another obstacle for Sheheen is the fact that South Carolinians tend to stick with candidates already in office, said Citadel political scientist Scott Buchanan, who joined Woodard in predicting a Haley win. “I don’t see them voting against the incumbent.”
Francis Marion University political scientist Alissa Warters called Sheheen’s campaign “lackluster.” While Sheheen has struggled, Republican Haley has taken up some of the same issues as the Democrat, including improving the state’s schools, she added.
Sheheen’s campaign is trying to convince voters that scandals, including the 2012 theft of financial information belonging to 6.4 million taxpayers and businesses from the S.C. Department of Revenue, have plagued Haley’s administration.
But while most people polled soon after the data breach blamed the state, the hacking “has not been hung around Nikki’s neck,” Huffmon said. Instead, Haley’s approval ratings have grown, according to recent Winthrop polls.
Democrats could try to close South Carolinians’ party-preference gap for Republicans in the future by courting newcomers, especially on social issues, The Citadel’s Buchanan said. But he does not expect that shift to start until after 2018.
The political experts don’t expect petition gubernatorial candidate Tom Ervin, a Greenville lawyer who has spent more than $3.5 million in his self-financed bid, to have much impact on the November election. Too many voters push party buttons to elect a slate of candidates, they said.
“I don’t think he’s a Ross Perot,” said University of South Carolina political scientist Todd Shaw, referring to the third-party candidate who helped unseat incumbent Republican George H.W. Bush in the 1992 presidential election.
Also running for governor are Libertarian Steve French and United Citizens candidate Morgan Bruce Reeves.