The S.C. voters that presidential candidates will be wooing over the next weeks are far different than in 2008, the last time the state had two presidential primaries.
Those voters are older and more diverse racially. Most are signing up in counties where Republicans dominate at the polls. And there are a lot more of them — 3 million compared to 2.2 million in 2008.
The State compared the makeup of S.C. registered voters leading up to the state’s 2008 presidential primaries to those who registered in time to vote in the GOP and Democratic presidential primaries on Feb. 20 and 27, respectively.
The number of registered voters, age 65 and up, has increased by 57 percent since 2008, making older voters the fastest-growing age group. Older voters now account for one in four S.C. registered voters, up from one in five in eight years ago.
Meanwhile, younger voters – those ages 18 to 24 – have been the slowest growing age group since 2008, increasing by only 9 percent. The state’s youngest voters make up 8 percent of S.C. registered voters, down from 10 percent eight years ago.
The aging of South Carolina’s voters could have an impact on this month’s primaries.
In 2008, younger S.C. voters played a pivotal role in winning the state’s Democratic primary for then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama.
“2008 was really unprecedented with (Barack) Obama and his appeal to young people. There was a surge of younger people who registered,” said College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts.
This year, however, the influence of those younger voters could be diminished by the surge in older voters.
That surge – more than doubling in Lancaster and Jasper counties, areas near or home to thriving retirement communities, for example – makes sense, said Knotts. “We are a very popular retirement destination.”
Older S.C. registered voters tend to be more conservative, said Scott Buchanan, a political scientists at The Citadel. That could favor Republican turnout in the state’s Feb. 20 GOP primary, he said.
“People who are older and are registered to vote are much more likely to show up and vote on election day,” he said.
The State’s comparison of South Carolina’s 2016 voters to their 2008 counterparts also found:
▪ African-American voters, who make up half the state’s Democratic electorate, now account for 28 percent of the state’s registered voters, up from 26 percent in 2008.
▪ White voters – still an overwhelming majority – account for 69 percent of the state’s registered voters, down from 72 percent eight years ago.
▪ Blacks also are registering to vote at a faster pace than whites.
Forty-percent more blacks have registered to vote since 2008, compared to a 26 percent increase among white voters during the same time, the State found.
The upward tick of minorities registering to vote is a continuation of a trend that started in 2008.
“When Barack Obama was the nominee, that's when you saw an enormous bump up in the number of black South Carolinians registered to vote and voting on election day,” Buchanan said.
“When there's this sort of initial decision to register to vote, there tends to be a carryover effect after that – that this becomes the new norm: ‘We register to vote, and we vote.’ ”
Gains in GOP territory
While the population of 22 of South Carolina’s 46 counties dropped from 2008 to 2014, according to U.S. Census data, every county in the state saw its voter registration numbers increase.
For example, the population of Fairfield County dropped by 1,115 from 2008 to 2014. But the number of registered voters in Fairfield this year is up by 2,894 compared to 2008.
But, Buchanan said, the overall voter-registration trends spell more bad news than good for the state’s minority party Democrats.
Eight of the 10 counties that have added the most registered voters since 2008 were won by Republican presidential candidates John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012. They are Greenville, Horry, York, Lexington, Spartanburg, Berkeley, Dorchester and Beaufort.
By contrast, seven of the 10 counties that have added the fewest registered voters since 2008 leaned Democratic in the past two presidential elections.
“It's not good news for the Democratic Party overall because the growth is in the big Republican counties,” Buchanan said.
If there is good news for Democrats in South Carolina’s changing electorate it is in the state’s biggest cities.
President Obama won two counties that have been among the state’s leaders in adding voters since 2008 — Charleston, which has the added the most new voters of any county, and Richland, which has had the fourth highest increase in new registrations.
Obama handily won Richland in 2008 and 2012 — by about 50,000 votes each time. However, his margins of victory in Charleston narrowed – to 3,900 votes in 2012 from 12,800 in 2008 – making that county more competitive for Republicans.
“Charleston can go either way” — Republican or Democratic, Buchanan said.
S.C. registered voters
How South Carolina is changing:
3 million: Number of S.C. registered voters now, up from 2.2 million in 2008
40 percent: Growth in African-American voter registration since 2008
26 percent: Growth in white voter registration since 2008
86,420: Number of S.C. registered voters who are not white or African American, including 38,100 Hispanic voters
39,320: Number of S.C. registered voters in 2008 who were not white or African American, including Hispanic voters
24 percent: S.C. registered voters who are 65 or older, up from 20 percent in 2008
S.C. voter registration gains
A look at the counties with the fastest-growing voter registration numbers since 2008:
By the rate that voter-registration increased
Jasper: Up 64 percent
Lancaster: Up 51 percent
Charleston: Up 49 percent
Horry: Up 48 percent
Berkeley: Up 46 percent
By the number of new voters registered