How important are the South Carolina primaries?

We look at what the state means for Republicans and Democrats and ask what matters to South Carolina's voters.

    How important are the South Carolina primaries?
    Democratic US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in a forum at Denmark-Olar Elementary School in Denmark, South Carolina [Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

    The US presidential primary election is hitting its stride with votes taking place in 14 states in the next three weeks. As the battle moves down to South Carolina, presidential contenders will be looking to consolidate their win (or make a comeback following a loss) in Iowa or New Hampshire.   

    But South Carolina, where Republicans will vote on Saturday and Democrats a week later, is more diverse and representative of the country as a whole than the previous two states: here the African American population is larger, and with its myriad military bases and academies, it is home to many veterans.

    Traditionally, South Carolina has supported the Bushes and the Clintons: on February 15, former president George W Bush came out to North Charleston in a show of support for his brother, Jeb, who is running on the Republican ticket. But surprises can happen in South Carolina.

    The Palmetto State is known for its ability to predict the Republican nomination: With one exception since 1980, every victor in the primary has gone on to become the nominee.

    While known for its southern charm, South Carolina is also the place where the gloves come off: From accusations of fathering illegitimate children to spreading rumours about mental illness, South Carolina's gritty primary politics are legendary.

    While the back-stabbing and rumour-spreading have been kept to a minimum (so far), the race leading up to South Carolina's primary has been heated. The Republican presidential debate on February 13 drew cheers and boos from the crowd, and the anger was palpable among the contestants - a sign of how important this southern state will be in the race to the White House.

    Former US President George W Bush, centre, speaks for his brother, US Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, left, at a campaign event in South Carolina [EPA/Erik S. Lesser]

    Why is South Carolina important to the Republicans?

    Iowa, with its relatively low turnout, and New Hampshire, which is known for being more moderate, is unrepresentative of the Republican base. But South Carolina traditionally picks the Republican winner.

    "South Carolina is a mix of both, and therefore it's a real test of what America wants," said Scottie Nell Hughes, the news director for the Tea Party News Network, a conservative news site.

    READ MORE: Why do the Iowa caucuses matter?

    Since Ronald Reagan won in 1980, only Newt Gingrich has lost the Republican nomination after winning the primary there in 2012. The South Carolina Republican party prides itself on its ability to select the eventual nominee, so much so that it proclaims on its website: "We take our primaries very seriously - We pick presidents!"

    Hughes told Al Jazeera that the state's primary electorate best mirrors the nation's Republican base, because it comprises a "broad range of the urban vote, evangelical vote, establishment vote" - a mixture of conservatives, more moderate voters, and fiscally conservative but socially liberal retirees in the coastal areas who hail from northern states such as New York.

    South Carolina also has 50 delegates up for grabs to Republican candidates - a larger number than those offered by Iowa or New Hampshire. "It will certainly help if you win South Carolina because you will grab more delegates than you could have in both states combined. After all, it comes down to a numbers game," Hughes said.

    READ MORE: How secret donations influence US elections

    Can Bernie Sanders appeal to African American voters?

    On the road to the presidency, South Carolina is the third state for Republicans, and the fourth for Democrats, so it will build momentum for the winning candidates as they head for Super Tuesday on March 1 - when several, mostly southern, states hold primaries in a single day.

    Because South Carolina has voted Republican since 1976, the race on the Democratic side is relatively less important and considerably quieter. The Democratic contenders will first head to Nevada on February 20, before moving on to South Carolina on February 27.

    READ MORE: Are African Americans 'sleepwalking' towards Clinton?

    South Carolina will be the first big test of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders' appeal to black voters who represent a majority of the vote in many southern Democratic primaries.

    Who are South Carolina's voters - and what do they care about?

    South Carolina is home to a sizeable African American population - roughly 28 percent.

    Until the 1960s, the Democratic party held power in South Carolina and many African Americans voted Republican because the Democrats strongly supported segregation.

    When leading Democratic opponents of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, such as Senator Strom Thurmond, switched their allegiance to the Republican party, many African American voters moved in the opposite direction.

    Because the state overwhelmingly votes Republican, candidates calling for less federal government intervention resonate with voters here.

    Voters wait to greet Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a campaign event on February 15  [Alex Wong/Getty Images]

    "South Carolina, just like the rest of the country, is hurting economically," Hughes explained. "It is also overtaxed, so any talk by any candidate about any sort of tax on the federal level does not go over well here."

    Charleston is a port city, "so security is a big issue for South Carolinians and fears of what can come through the borders," Hughes said.

    "Taxes, international trade and terror: these are some of the issues folks care about," he added.

    The economy has long been a top election issue for Americans, and, with an unemployment rate of 5.5 percent, South Carolina is no different.

    "The economy drives the elections," said David Woodard, a Clemson University political science professor. "But we are also interested in foreign policy because we have many military retirees."

    South Carolina also boasts a strong evangelical population - 30 percent, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives.

    Religion tends to be an important issue for both Democrats and Republicans here. "Voters in both parties are pretty frequent in their church attendance," said Woodard, who is also a Republican consultant and author of The New Southern Politics.

    "Their faith is important and they try to exercise their faith in how they vote. But even among Republicanism, they are not one unified group. They are diverse in who they support and why," he added, making it all the more difficult to predict their candidate of choice.

    What's at stake for the Republicans?

    Republican presidential candidates Kasich, Bush, Cruz, Trump, Rubio and Carson take the stage during the Republican presidential debate in Greenville, South Carolina [EPA/Erik S. Lesser]

    Building on the momentum of his New Hampshire win, billionaire reality TV star Donald Trump has a commanding lead in South Carolina (despite a bad debate performance last week in Greenville).

    "Trump appears to be well ahead in the South Carolina Republican primary," said Louis DeSipio, the director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of California, Irvine. "As long as it remains a multi-candidate race, he seems able to hold on to about a third of the vote, enough to 'win'. Should the field drop to two, he would probably be at more of a disadvantage."

    Just as he did in Iowa, Texas senator Ted Cruz is courting evangelical voters, while Florida senator Marco Rubio is counting on the endorsement of prominent South Carolina politicians to shore him up after a disastrous performance in New Hampshire's debate on February 6.  

    "Cruz has a large number of people on the ground working for him, and Rubio has been endorsed by influential South Carolina leaders, but we will have to see whether he can translate that into victory," Woodard said. "Trump has a chance because voters here are angry having lived eight years under Obama, and I hear people regularly saying 'Trump expresses my anger'."

    But this could also be the last stand for Florida governor Jeb Bush, who, like his brother before him, is popular here, especially among military personnel. Having kept out of the political limelight for the most part since leaving the White House, George W Bush is being drafted in to ensure that his brother locks down support in South Carolina, a long-time family stronghold. In an attempt to shore up support for Jeb, the former president made his campaign debut in North Charleston, and took part in his first campaign ad, which hit the airwaves of South Carolina's conservative talk radio stations on February 10.

    So far, Jeb's confidence in the southern state has been palpable. "South Carolina is Jeb country," his campaign staff tweeted on February 10 under a picture of supporters in a packed room. He also had his best debate performance yet in Greenville, where he blasted Trump and defended his family's presidential legacy, a far cry from the time he asked his supporters to "please clap" a week earlier in New Hampshire.

    "This state has been really good to the Bush family," Woodard said. "It voted for Jeb's father and his brother, but I just don't know if that will translate into votes for him."

    How decisive is the 'minority vote' for the Democrats?

    Hillary Clinton greets District Superintendent Dr Thelma Sojourner before speaking to voters in South Carolina a day after her debate with Bernie Sanders  [Spencer Platt/Getty Images]

    In 2008, 55 percent of Democratic voters in South Carolina's primary were African American, so the battle for the minority vote is expected to dominate their primary.

    After her substantial loss to Sanders in New Hampshire and her razor-thin win in Iowa, Clinton is eyeing South Carolina carefully. But with more US voters looking to maverick candidates, Sanders is shoring up support in key demographics Clinton once counted on - middle-class and younger voters, including blacks and Latinos.

    "For the young, it's Bernie," said Dale Kuehne, a politics professor at St Anselm College in New Hampshire. "It's pretty simple - antipathy to Wall Street, student loans, the diminishing of the middle class, the sense of loss of the 'American dream' ... young people are saying we need to do what we can now for change."

    The Vermont senator is pouring money and energy into proving to the African American community that he can heal the nation's racial divide. Recently his campaign released an ad featuring the daughter of Eric Garner, an African American man killed by police during an arrest for selling cigarettes. "We have seen black men walk down the street in this country being beaten and killed unjustly," Erica Garner, who is backing Sanders, said in the ad.

    "Bernie has a long history of involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, going back to when he was a young man," said Jonathan Tasini, the author of The Essential Bernie Sanders and His Vision for America. "In his legislative career of 25 years, he has supported a slew of legislation on issues like racism and unemployment that benefited African Americans, and all workers."

    But unlike the Clintons, Sanders struggles with name recognition. "The question is: does he have enough time for people to get to know who he is? Whenever people have gotten to know him he does well," Tasini said. "Bernie is talking about expanding social security, which affects African American seniors. He talks about education, violence, racism, and national incarceration, which affects African Americans disproportionally."

    Even though Clinton has secured an endorsement from the political action committee of the influential Congressional Black Caucus, and she has old loyalties - dating back to her husband's time in office - to build on, her challenge is to win the confidence of those African American voters who turned to Barack Obama in 2008. She also needs to appeal to younger black voters, who have not forgotten Bill Clinton's 1994 Violent Crime Control Act, which some say led to mass incarceration.

    "Bernie's campaign is surging and Clinton hasn't found a way to blunt his message with core Democratic voters," DeSipio said. "Before South Carolina, she needs to do well in Nevada to prove that her campaign is still viable. To do well in Nevada, she will need to do well among Latinos. They have traditionally been in her camp, so she has an advantage."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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