The South Carolina primary is the third or fourth nominating contest on the calendar, depending on which party you look at, but it is first in a couple of important aspects. This Saturday, February 20, Republicans in South Carolina will continue the battle for the nomination. Democrats here will follow a week later. Now that we have voting results from the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary, the shape of the primary races is taking form. For Republicans, the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s unexpected front-runner status has been confirmed. And for Democrats, the legitimacy of Bernie Sanders’ challenger status has as well. South Carolina’s unique characteristics will shape each race further.
To vote in the Iowa caucus of a particular party, you must be registered as affiliated with that party. However, Iowa isn’t a completely closed caucus because voters can participate in either by simply changing their affiliation the day of the caucus. By contrast, New Hampshire employs a semi-open primary system. Non-affiliated voters may choose to vote in either party’s primary, but affiliated voters cannot vote in another party’s primary. Unlike the first two states on the nomination calendar, South Carolina is truly open. In fact, folks who register to vote here are unable to declare an official party affiliation. It’s just not part of the registration process. Open primaries effect nomination races differently than closed contests where only partisans may vote for their party’s nominee. Sometimes, voters who identify with one party will vote for a candidate from another party. They may be particularly fond of the candidate, or, perhaps more likely, they may want to influence the opposing party’s primary outcome to better suit their own party’s chances in the general election. This phenomenon is unlikely to occur en masse this year in South Carolina since both parties feature races that are still very much undecided.
South Carolina is the first southern state primary.
Located well within the confines of the Solid South, South Carolina will present a demographic unique to the primary season so far. For Republicans, evangelicals should make up roughly 2/3 of voters. That’s about the same as in Iowa. But South Carolina is a primary. There will be no peer-to-peer politicking or persuasion at voting sites here. While the ‘first-in-the-south’ moniker may impact the Republican vote a little, it will impact the Democratic side a lot. The Palmetto State represents the first opportunity for the staunchly Democratic African-American community to voice its preference. In Iowa, blacks make up 3 or 4% of the population. In New Hampshire, that number is even less, just 1.5%. South Carolina’s profile is much different. The black portion of the general population approaches 30%, and the number of Democrats in the state who are African-American is upwards of 50%. Given its numbers in South Carolina, its easy to see why the African-American community’s vote here has been a focal point of the Democratic nomination battle coming out of New Hampshire. More than anything, minority support is the basis for Hillary Clinton’s southern firewall. And while that firewall is made up of more than black voters, South Carolina will be its first real test. Bernie Sanders has made the grade so far, but South Carolina will be pivotal in determining how much mojo his campaign truly has. South Carolina is the first ‘winner-take-all’ state, sort of.
Winner-take-all is a concept in which one candidate can earn all a state’s delegates by simply getting more votes than anyone else. It is also exclusive to the Republican primaries. Starting March 15, most GOP primaries will feature this method of awarding delegates. Before then, states allocate delegates mostly by proportion. South Carolina an exception to that rule, but its winner-take-all method is modified. Instead of awarding all delegates to the one who gets the most votes, South Carolina Republicans award some delegates to the statewide winner and others to the winner in each congressional district. The fifty delegates up for grabs on Saturday in the GOP primary will be awarded as follows. The winner in each congressional district will earn all three delegates for that district. Since South Carolina has seven districts, this method allocates 21 total delegates. The remaining 29 delegates in South Carolina will go to the statewide winner. This means simply winning the vote is much more meaningful here than in the previous two nomination contests. Someone, and polls say now that it will likely be Donald Trump, will earn a sizable delegate margin by carrying the statewide vote. But, unlike true winner-take-all states, others who perform well in localized areas could see their delegate count total increase as well.