The six remaining serious candidates for the Republican presidential nomination will gather in Greenville, South Carolina later Saturday for the first post-New Hampshire primary debate. The stakes for the debate, which comes one week before the South Carolina primary, are giant given how decisive the Palmetto State vote has been in other recent Republican presidential fights. To get a lay of the land, I reached out to Andy Shain, The State newspaper’s politics reporter. Our conversation, conducted via email, is below.
FIX: Donald Trump starts the sprint to South Carolina as the favorite. Am I right or wrong about that? Why?
Shain: You’re right. He has topped 19 of the last 20 polls in South Carolina dating back to late July. Put another way: His lead has stretched from a month before football season began through the week after the Super Bowl.
Trump has hit all the pressure points among the working class in the state. They fear for their jobs and paychecks. They fear terrorist attacks. They think immigrants weigh down the country. This all weakens the United States and they think needs a strong hand.
Add their deep dislike for President Obama and anything D.C. related and Trump hit the jackpot with his message.
Plus, it doesn’t hurt he’s a star. They have seen him on “The Apprentice” and watched him on news programs for years. He has a huge amount of trust from his supporters who are convinced that he will bring aboard the right people to help him in the White House.
FIX: There’s a lot of talk coming from Jeb Bush’s campaign that South Carolina is “Bush country.” George W. Bush is even in a new radio ad for his brother in the state. How real is the “Bush country” idea and from where does it spring?
Shain: His father and brother won South Carolina’s primaries on the way to the White House.
This was the first Southern state where they claimed victories.
The family still has deep support among the state’s Republican establishment. They all went with Lindsey Graham (out of loyalty to a home-state politician), and you can see how it hurt Bush’s contributions in the state. Graham collected $7 for every $1 Bush gathered.
Now a majority of those big-time Graham 2016 backers have joined the Bush camp. The question is whether that matters in the age of micro-targeting of voters based on their social media habits and the rock concert-sized crowds Trump is attracting.
Another problem are the elites jumping to Trump. Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster, a former state attorney general and S.C. GOP party chairman, was the first to back the unconventional front-runner.
This week, businessman Bill Stern, who was on the state’s George W. Bush 2000 finance team and a co-chair of Graham’s presidential run, came out for Trump.
It’s an alternate universe for Republicans in South Carolina now.
Can a visit by W. on Monday to North Charleston change that and remind Republicans why they need to go back to the establishment? Ask the thousands of Trump fanatics at his next rally.
FIX: How much does what happened in Iowa and New Hampshire matter to South Carolina Republicans? Do they follow the first two states closely or not?
Shain: They follow what happens in the earlier races, but I keep hearing from voters that they are not really focused on the election until the caravan comes to South Carolina.
I went to a Rubio rally on Wednesday and found three undecided voters among the first five I approached. (Rubio was on their list, and they were giving him a look.) Voters also were waiting for the field to shrink. Six or seven candidates is a lot easier to weigh and compare than 17.
FIX: Which Republican has the best organization in South Carolina? Who has the worst?
Shain: Cruz and Bush have received the most praise. They both have been here for awhile as has Carson, who raised the most money in South Carolina among Republicans in the state (outside of Graham).
Rubio has put together a good team, though it came together later than others. Kasich did not have much of a presence here, though his super PAC was around.
And Trump? Does it matter? His folks say he’s got a ground game going. But he gets thousands to come to his rallies with a few days notice.
FIX: Finish this sentence: “The most important region of the state in the presidential primary on Feb. 20 is _______________.” Now, explain.
Shain: Where you can find your voters.
I could talk about Charleston, since the coastal city represents a little bit of everything in the state has to offer from evangelicals to libertarians.
Consider that Cruz, the super religious candidate, is raising more money from Charleston than anywhere else — even the Greenville-Spartanburg area that’s home to the state’s evangelical base.
In a twist, Rubio is drawing strong financial support from more socially conservative Upstate.
This suggests how candidates are targeting their voters no matter where they are located.
That said, Trump is bursting all the conventional wisdom in the state. The candidate who never asked for forgiveness from God leads with evangelicals. The guy who wants halt Muslims from entering the country is the favorite among Republican moderates.
Maybe the better answer to this question is, “Wherever Trump is.”