State of the States: South Carolina

South Carolina is currently the most consistent state in the Union. In the 8 elections between 1988 and 2016, the state was between R+14 and R+16 each time. Current poll averages are showing R+14. This is a place that knows what it is. Except when it changes its mind.

From 1896 to 1944, South Carolina was also the most consistent state. Consistently insanely blue. Often giving Democratic candidates well over 90% of the vote. As you’re noticing, almost every state has changed long-term party affiliation at least once. As fun as South Carolina’s journey is to point out, it’s no more remarkable than Vermont going from the most reliably Republican to among the most solidly Democratic.

But something distinct did happen in South Carolina. For well over a century, it was the grouchiest state, now it’s one of the calmest. The state kept grudges. Forever. Now it doesn’t seem to matter who the candidates are, the result is the same. Time to take a look at what made South Carolina chill.

2016 Results: Donald Trump 54.94%, Hillary Clinton 40.67%, Gary Johnson 2.34%, Evan McMullin 1.00%, Jill Stein 0.62% (R+16)

As mentioned, Trump fell right within the established range for GOP candidates. Unlike Vermont and Alaska, voters resisted giving a lot of support to third party candidates and didn’t bother with write-ins. In many states there is about 10% of the 2016 vote for both Biden and Trump to chase. Not here. And it’s part of why Biden’s odds here are long. Convincing someone who voted for Trump to switch over is harder than someone who just didn’t want to pick Hillary and took a third party option.

2020 Polls: There’s no guarantee Biden is going to win the election. FiveThirtyEight has him at 77/23 today. A lot of Trump’s chance is based on the polls narrowing in the final few weeks and/or being off. This isn’t over yet, especially with 3 debates still to happen. But you can see how Biden is running ahead of Hillary by looking at South Carolina. The most recent couple of polls show a 6 point gap. This is not how things were looking in late September 2016.

In the recent Quinnipiac poll Trump’s margin is about the same as the gap between voters who prefer Republican Senate control over the Democrats controlling. So right now the Trump/Biden gap and the R/D partisan gap match. This seems about right. However, it’s unusual that South Carolinians would favor Republican control by a single-digit margin. Going a step further, Lindsey Graham is tied with his Democratic challenger Jamie Harrison. This means there are a few voters who are supporting Harrison despite wanting a GOP majority, a difficult one to maintain in a universe where Graham loses.

Key Historical Shifts:

Phase One (1796-1828): It took a few elections for popular voting at the state level for presidents to kick in. South Carolina was uniquely non-Democratic, relying on the state legislature to assign electors all the way though 1860. Most states had switched to popular voting decades before then.

In this first phase, the state was loyal to the Virginia Dynasty (Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe), choosing those Virginians with their first 7 post-Washington votes. Then Andrew Jackson in his first two presidential attempts. Simple enough, and consistent with what most Southern states decided.

Phase Two (1832-1836): Nullification Era. A lot can happen in a few years. Jackson was inaugurated along with his Vice President, South Carolinian John C. Calhoun in March 1829. The state and Jackson’s Democratic Party seemed aligned. Then came a big dispute about tariffs and the contention of both South Carolina and Calhoun that an individual state could nullify legislation it wasn’t on board with.

Jackson disagreed. Loudly. And for the first, but hardly last time, South Carolina threatened to secede. Calhoun was booted (by mutual consent) from the 1832 ticket, after running with Jackson twice. Angry South Carolina gave its electoral votes to some guy named John Floyd, not being willing to support Jackson or Republican/Whig Henry Clay.

South Carolina legislators opted for a Whig in 1836. Said candidate Willie Person Mangum, was not one of the Whigs running elsewhere in the country. It was confusing enough that William Henry Harrison, Hugh White, and Daniel Webster were all running under that banner in various states, but unlike Mangum, the others all earned actual popular votes in the states they were in. South Carolina wasn’t ready to go back to the Democrats; candidate Martin Van Buren was very much a Jackson protege. None of the national Whigs were acceptable either. The state was still being difficult.

Phase Three (1840-1860): After two elections of protest, the South Carolina legislature decided to return to the Democrats in 1840, supporting Martin Van Buren in his failed re-election attempt. Each of the next four elections went the same way. Though the Whig party did have some support in the South, winning states here and there and often making it close when they didn’t, South Carolina’s legislators stuck with the Democrats.

In 1860, as the Civil War approached, everything fractured. While northern states were choosing between Republican Abraham Lincoln and Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, most southern states picked Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge over Constitutional Union nominee John Bell. South Carolina was no exception. Soon after, it became the first state to secede from the Union, and did not participate in the 1864 election as it was a member of the Confederacy.

Phase Four (1868-1876): Reconstruction. This finally brought popular voting to South Carolina. And with it, the temporary ability for most African American men to participate. Currently, the state is 27% Black, one of the higher percentages in the country. But 150 years ago, prior to the Great Migration of the early-mid 20th century, this was over 50%. And in those days, this was an automatic vote for the Party of Lincoln. So South Carolina heartily supported Republican Ulysses S. Grant in 1868 and 1872 despite his victory over Robert E. Lee.

This was temporary. African American turnout was much lower in 1876, and it wasn’t due to lack of interest. A group called the Red Shirts, which included Benjamin Tillman, future 4-term U.S. Senator from South Carolina, terrorized Black voters in several counties. Republican Rutherford B. Hayes narrowly won a contested election in South Carolina by less than a thousand votes. These crucial electoral votes brought him the presidency. The terms of the negotiation also ended Reconstruction, and with it, the ability of Republicans to win the state.

Phase Five (1880-1896): Getting bluer all the time. 66. 75. 82. 78. 85. Those are the percentages of the vote Democratic presidential candidates grabbed in South Carolina during this phase. It was still possible for African Americans to vote, but getting increasingly harder. By the start of the 20th century, it was a virtual impossibility.

Phase Six (1900-1944): One party state. Check this out:

1900: 93%

1904: 95%

1908: 94%

1912: 96%

1916: 97%

1920: 96%

1924: 97%

1928: 91%

1932: 98%

1936: 99%

1940: 96%

1944: 88%

Try separating the years (1920, 1924) where Democrats lost by more than 20 points nationally, from the year they won by more than 20 (1936). It’s all the same, regardless of the strength of the candidate. With two exceptions. The first, 1928, was the debut of a Catholic nominee, Al Smith. The heavily Protestant southern states turned against him. In Florida, Texas, Virginia, and Tennessee it was enough to give Republican Herbert Hoover the win. South Carolina was so rigidly Democratic, it only cost him 9 points.

By his fourth campaign in 1944, FDR was beginning to lose some ground in South Carolina, as he’d desegregated wartime industrial production, and taken a few other halting steps in the direction of civil rights. Notably, the lost votes were not picked up by his Republican opponent Thomas Dewey. Instead, Unpledged Dixiecrat electors got the support.

Phase Seven (1948-1980): Bipolar. In 1948, the Democrats passed their first ever strong platform plank on civil rights at the national convention. A few southern delegations walked out of the convention hall. Within a few weeks, led by South Carolina and Governor Strom Thurmond (yes, the same guy who was serving in the U.S. Senate at the time of his death in 2003), the Dixiecrat Party had seceded from the Democrats and was ready to compete with Harry Truman in the general election.

Thurmond won Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and his home state. Though he only earned 2.4% of the national popular vote, he took 72% in South Carolina. Republicans were still poison there. Truman finished second with 24%, while GOP nominee Dewey was under 4%.

Then Dwight Eisenhower entered the scene in 1952. Suddenly, for the first time since 1876 and the first time ever with a white electorate, South Carolina considered a Republican. He lost to Adlai Stevenson by less than 2 points. This was like 1836, residual bitterness at the Democratic Party for previous sins. But in 1840, things returned to normal. This time not.

The 1956 election showed Ike was just there in 1952 to make the Dems jealous. He dropped to 25% of the vote. Stevenson beat him by 20 points. If you’re doing the math, you’ll notice that doesn’t add up to 100%. Unpledged Dixiecrat electors got the remaining 30%. Next up was the 1960 JFK-Nixon contest. Unlike 1928, when Democratic loyalty >>> anti-Catholic sentiment, Kennedy barely won, finishing 2.4% ahead. South Carolina was officially unpredictable from election to election, for the first time ever.

In 1964, a Republican finally won the state outright. Barry Goldwater only won 6 states that year, the four Thurmond supporters from 1948, Georgia, and his home state of Arizona. South Carolina was R+40. The sudden shift had two components. First, Strom Thurmond officially abandoned the Democrats for good, joining the GOP. Second, Goldwater voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Thurmond was an early endorser of the Goldwater campaign during the primaries. The combination was too much for South Carolinians to pass up.

This Thurmond connection with the GOP made a huge difference in 1968. First, he helped Richard Nixon secure the nomination. Then his support brought Nixon the state in November. George Wallace was on the ballot for the American Independent Party. And the segregationist Alabama governor won all the states who voted for Thurmond and/or Goldwater, plus Arkansas. Except South Carolina. It was close. No candidate got 40%, and Democrat Hubert Humphrey finished third. Thurmond made the difference.

In 1972, liberal Democrat George McGovern was not what South Carolina was looking for, and Thurmond had made it safe to vote Republican. Nixon won big, gaining 71% of the vote, well ahead of his national landslide numbers. At this point, you would be forgiven for thinking this was a reliably red state, having voted Republican in three consecutive elections, in each case by a wider margin than the national popular vote. Not so fast.

Georgia governor Jimmy Carter won the 1976 Democratic nomination. And won South Carolina. Easily. By 11 points more than his winning national margin. Then in 1980, despite being nationally unpopular and losing 489 electoral votes to 49, Carter almost won the Palmetto State, trailing by less than two points. Sectional loyalty still counted for something.

Phase Eight (1984-Present): Red state. 1980 was the last hurrah for Democrats in South Carolina. Ronald Reagan ran 10 points ahead of his national landslide in 1984 there. That R+10 is the worst Republicans have done in South Carolina since the state flipped. As mentioned above, every successive election has resulted in a GOP win, with a R+14 to R+16 bias, even when another southern governor, Bill Clinton, was on the ballot. While Clinton won in his native Arkansas, Louisiana Tennessee, and Georgia at least once in his two elections, South Carolina remained unimpressed with him.

Thurmond’s presence was part of this, but South Carolina is still red, and the oldest senator in U.S. history is 17 years deceased. I think the state is content and consistent because of it’s key place in the GOP nomination contest. The first serious South Carolina primary was in 1980. From then forward, only one Republican (Newt Gingrich, 2012) has won the nomination without winning there. Sometimes Iowa is predictive. Sometimes New Hampshire. Almost always South Carolina. As we’ve learned digging through the past 200+ years, the state is big on feeling respected.

Old school South Carolina was very much like Alabama and Mississippi. Now it’s not as much. The state has higher income and education levels. More migrants from the northeast or elsewhere in the country. Instead of single digits like South Carolina, Trump leads in Mississippi by 12%, Alabama by 15%. Nikki Haley and Tim Scott are the face of the South Carolina GOP, especially if Graham loses his Senate contest. It’s not turning blue in 2020, but it’s less out of the question in the future than many of the other reliably red states.

How Biden Can Improve on Hillary’s 2016 Result: Quinnipiac is showing Trump favored 71/27 among less educated white men. This indicates Biden’s generally stronger than Clinton showing in other states with this group isn’t carrying through here. His overall SC polling improvement and chance at making it close rests on progress with upscale voters, particularly those in the 1st District that propelled Joe Cunningham to an upset win in his 2018 House contest.

How Trump Can Improve on His 2016 Result: Doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. There are few 2016 Gary Johnson voters to win back to the GOP. It looks like Trump can maintain the traditional Republican advantage in state, but unless he winds up closer to Biden nationally than he was to Clinton, that’s not going to increase his margin here.

Forecast: Biden is highly unlikely to win South Carolina. The drama is in the Graham-Harrison Senate race. The fundamentals favor Graham. Fundraising favors Harrison. He’s pulled in $100 million. I don’t want to hazard a guess as to the winner. But if it’s Harrison, South Carolina is officially more interesting than it’s been in two generations.

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