South Carolina: Up for grabs?
South Carolina: Up for grabs?
Based on South Carolina’s bright red image, the idea that it’s a toss-up state that could go for President Obama in the fall may sound like a joke. It isn’t when one looks below the surface.
Let’s acknowledge that Republicans control both houses of the legislature, hold all the state’s constitutional offices, and all congressional seats except for House Democrat James Clyburn’s. Yet, South Carolina’s political reality below the surface differs significantly from the national perception. As recently as late April, Karl Rove listed South Carolina as one of six toss-up states on the basis of 50-state polling.
Add to that Mitt Romney’s demonstrated inability to attract voters in South Carolina. He finished fourth in the state’s 2004 GOP presidential primary and this year, despite Gov. Nikki Haley’s endorsement, he got only 28 percent, a distant second to Newt Gingrich’s 40 percent.
There is more. In South Carolina’s early 2008 Democratic primary, Obama won a smashing victory that fully established his credibility. His 55 percent of the vote doubled Hillary Clinton’s share and tripled that of home state native John Edwards. Obama won not only 80 percent of the black vote, but also 24 percent of the white vote
In the 2008 general election, however, team Obama ignored pleas by Clyburn and moved its entire South Carolina organization elsewhere, mostly to North Carolina. Even so he received 45 percent of the vote in the Palmetto state, 10 percent greater than John Kerry’s 41 percent four years earlier.
Romney’s biggest problem in South Carolina isn’t his Mormonism. The state has a long history of religious tolerance, dating back to John Locke’s 17th century framing the colony’s Fundamental Constitutions that welcomed Huguenots, Jews, and Quakers. South Carolina delegate Charles Pinckney played a central role in 1787 at the Constitutional convention’s adopting the provision that there be no religious test for public office. Religious tolerance remains deeply embedded in the state’s cultural tradition.
Romney’s greater problem lies elsewhere. Insight comes from my initial career as a political reporter in the state. In 1972, Strom Thurmond was running for reelection against a credible opponent, and I asked a textile worker in blue overalls walking out at his mill’s shift change, “Who do you plan to vote for as senator?”
“Strong Thurmond,” he asserted spontaneously. When asked why, he replied, again without hesitation, “Because he stands up for what he believes in even when he’s wrong.” It’s a quality I haven’t heard any Romney supporter give as their reason for supporting him.
This political trait, however, remains deeply ingrained in South Carolina’s political culture. It explains why for 36 years a majority of South Carolina voters kept Thurmond the conservative Republican and Fritz Hollings the moderate Democrat in the Senate. Both understood the state’s voters, and neither equivocated.
This year there several reasons to explain Rove’s findings and Clyburn’s belief. They include a state Supreme Court ruling that has disqualified more than 250 challengers for legislative and county offices. Essentially, they failed to file by mail with the State Ethics Commission a statement related to sources of income before the deadline. (Many had filed electronically.) Incumbent legislators were exempt because they had previously filed such statements. With no statewide races and few contested legislative seats or local races to pull in voters in November, low turnout is expected.
Moreover, it’s a state with almost 30 percent black voter registration. State Rep. David Mack, a past chairman of South Carolina’s legislative black caucus, believes that if Obama came to Columbia, the state capital, after the national Democratic convention in nearby Charlotte, N.C., and met with the 34-member caucus, he could activate a heavy black voter turn-out in November. He could combine it with a big rally and a statewide fund-raiser.
State Democratic Chairman Dick Harpootlian sees the state as winnable by Obama, but that it will take organization and staff. “If George Soros gives me a million dollars,” he said, “we can win in South Carolina.”
A new element in South Carolina is its gaining a new U.S. House seat. The new Seventh District, with 37 percent black voter registration and a strong African-American candidate, is a potential Democratic pick-up. Gloria Bromell-Tinubu, who teaches economics at Coastal Carolina University, received 73 percent of the vote in a late June Democratic primary runoff.
Bromell-Tinubu, a former Atlanta city council member, resigned in December from the Georgia legislature to return to her native state’s coastal Georgetown County, where Michelle Obama also has ancestral roots. With South Carolina moving from eight electoral votes to nine, a switch to Obama would make an 18-electoral vote difference in the general election, nine less for Romney and nine more Obama.
Bass is professor of humanities and social sciences emeritus at the College of Charleston and author or co-author of eight books, including The Transformation of Southern Politics.