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« Six Responses to Bernie Sanders Skeptics | Main | George Will Says S.C. a Predictive State on Elections »
Sunday
Dec272015

Pay Attention to Who Wins S.C. Primary

By George F. Will

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Sen. Tim Scott, who evidently has not received the memo explaining that politics is a grim business, laughs easily, as when, during lunch in this city’s humming downtown, he explains that South Carolina is benefiting from “halfbacks.” These are migrants who moved from Northern states to Florida in search of warmth but, finding high prices and congestion, then moved halfway back, settling in South Carolina. Doing so, they have located in the state where history suggests that the 2016 Republican presidential nomination will begin to come to closure.

Since picking Ronald Reagan over John Connally and George H.W. Bush in 1980, South Carolina’s Republican primary electorate has sided with the eventual nominee every four years, with the exception of 2012, when Newt Gingrich from neighboring Georgia was rewarded for denouncing as “despicable” a journalist’s question during a debate here. This year, South Carolina votes just 10 days before the selection of convention delegates accelerates with the March 1 “SEC primary,” so named because five of the 12 primaries that day are in Southern states represented in that football conference.

The Human Snarl, aka Donald Trump, is leading polls here, where South Carolinians share the national consensus that, in Mr. Scott’s mild words, “however it is today is not the way it should be.” But it remains to be seen whether Republicans will vote for Mr. Trump while so warmly embracing the senator who is his stylistic antithesis. Mr. Scott is “an unbridled optimist” (his description) who thinks Republican chances in 2016 depend on whether their nominee is an “aspirational leader” or someone “selling fear.”

Mr. Scott’s un-Trumpian demeanor is both a cause and an effect of his popularity: He was elected with 61 percent of the vote in 2014 to complete the term of a senator who resigned. Which is why 13 of the GOP presidential candidates have eagerly accepted his invitations to hold town meetings with him.

He took Ohio Gov. John Kasich to Hilton Head because it has so many Ohioans, some of them halfbacks. All the candidates covet Mr. Scott’s endorsement, which could be a choice between two of Mr. Scott’s Senate colleagues, Florida’s Marco Rubio and Texas’ Ted Cruz. If, he says, South Carolinians choose well — “not sending independents fleeing in the opposite direction” — America will be en route to a Republican presidency.

Mr. Scott, 50, became a congressman by defeating in a Republican primary the son of Strom Thurmond, the Dixiecrat presidential candidate in 1948 and then eight-term U.S. senator. In 2013, Mr. Scott became the second African-American Republican senator since Reconstruction, and today he and New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker are the Senate’s only African-Americans.

Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington says that among the four states that vote in February (the others are Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada), South Carolina’s electorate “best mirrors the nation’s.”

At National Review Online, Mr. Olsen wrote that the state’s primary electorate closely reflects the national balance among the GOP’s four factions — “moderates and liberals” (32 percent), “somewhat conservatives” (32 percent), “very conservative evangelicals” (28 percent) and “very conservative seculars” (6 percent). Iowa, says Mr. Olsen, favors candidates who are very religious and conservative, New Hampshire favors moderates, Nevada favors conservative seculars. Here, however, a dominant cohort is that which Mr. Olsen calls the national party’s “ballast” — the “somewhat conservatives.”

When South Carolina’s 1980 primary voters chose Ronald Reagan, the huge Boeing and Mercedes plants in North Charleston and the BMW plant in Spartanburg were still in its future. As were the halfbacks, who are another reason South Carolina no longer has stereotypical Deep South demographics.

And why whichever Republican wins here will have done so in the first 2016 contest that approximates the electorates of the swing states that will determine the 45th president. This fact must be deeply satisfying to Mr. Scott, who was born 44 days after enactment of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that made all of this possible.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post(georgewill@washpost.com).

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