Nevada Caucuses, S.C. Votes

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Scott Simon discusses the significance of the Nevada caucuses and the Republican primary in South Carolina with Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, we'll preview the weekend's elections in Cuba. But first, elections a little closer to home. There's voting even today, with Republicans only casting primary votes in South Carolina; both parties holding caucuses in Nevada.

NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving joins us.

Ron, thanks for being with us.

RON ELVING: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: And how did these two, with respect, relatively small states get such a prominent spot in the primary calendar?

ELVING: Quite different paths. Nevada was appointed to the task by the Democratic National Committee, which wanted a Western state to move up to the top of the calendar and also one of the states with a substantial Hispanic population - about a quarter of the Nevada population is Latino. On the South Carolina side, totally a different story. The state volunteered itself…

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

ELVING: …30 years ago to become an important trigger primary for the Southern primaries that came to be known as Super Tuesday and, of course, are now spread all over the country. What we call Super Tuesday today is going to include about half of the states in the country on February 5th. But South Carolina got started as the trigger primary on the Saturday before the Tuesday that was Super Tuesday, and it laid down a marker, and the rest of the Southern states tended to follow it quite reliably.

To the degree that South Carolina has become the kingmaker in the Republican Party and the winner of the South Carolina primary in every contested quadrennium since 1980 has become the Republican nominee for president without exception - hasn't always been elected president, but has always won the nomination.

SIMON: Let's follow up with Nevada first. These are caucuses - how are they going to work? A lot like Iowa?

ELVING: Very much like Iowa. On the Republican side, you show up, you meet your neighbors, you hear a pitch for each of the candidates, you can nominate your neighbors if you want, nominate your own favorites. Then you have a secret ballot preference vote. No biggie.

On the Democratic side, like in Iowa, it's a much more social event where there's a lot more horse swapping and people meeting in groups and people having an open declaration of their preference for a candidate and standing up in front of their friends and co-workers and neighbors to declare themselves for the candidate they prefer.

SIMON: And this has been controversial, of course, because a very prominent union has made a public endorsement in that race. And if anybody wants to depart from their union, they're going to have to stand up and do it in public.

ELVING: Yes, with all of their co-workers and their union leaders, right there's doubtless, looking unhappy. I think there'll be a great deal of that, though. I think there are quite a few people who are going to cross the line from the culinary workers. They're not going to want to just follow what they were told by the union. A very large proportion of that union, about 40 percent, is Latino, and those people do not necessarily agree with the choice that the union made.

SIMON: Is it possible that participation will be held down because of the public declaration aspect?

ELVING: Caucuses always attracts more audience. Caucuses are about intensity of feeling and real dedication to a particular candidate or to a process. Primaries are much easier to vote in, so you'll get many more people participating. But I'll tell you, there will be a lot more than the 10,000 people who showed up for the Democratic caucuses in Nevada in 2004, got a much hotter contest, got national attention and the entire country really looking to see what Nevada was going to do.

SIMON: You referred to South Carolina as a kingmaker in Republican circles -quite a statement. Why is that?

ELVING: In this particular instance, we still have five or six viable candidates on the Republican side, even after Iowa and New Hampshire. And that field is probably going to get smaller today. At least one, maybe two candidates, is going to see his prospects foreclosed. And he may not drop out right away, but he's going to fade from view. And we're also going to see at the other end of the spectrum one or two people at the top who are going to go on to be the most serious candidates. I would say that we will see someone emerge from South Carolina tonight, who will be one of the two that go to the end of the Republican nominating contest.

SIMON: Ron Elving, thanks very much.

ELVING: My pleasure, Scott.

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What's at Stake in South Carolina's GOP Primary?

Did You Know?

  • South Carolina presidential primaries are conducted and paid for by the state's two political parties, not by the state government, so they can choose to hold the contests on different days.
  • Although South Carolina is home to many Christian conservatives, the leader of the fundamentalist Bob Jones University has endorsed the race's only Mormon candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
  • Beaufort and Charleston, S.C., have recently seen an influx of Northeasterners. These transplants tend to be less conservative than native Republicans. While they have yet to influence a presidential race, they could become a political force in the future.

South Carolina is seen as a crucial early voting state: Its primary has consistently foretold the Republican nomination since 1980 and often sets the tone for voting in other Southern states.

Here is a guide to what's at stake for the candidates in South Carolina's GOP primary on Jan. 19, and the issues that will be on voters' minds.

Candidates: Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee; California Rep. Duncan Hunter; Arizona Sen. John McCain; Texas Rep. Ron Paul; former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney; former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson

What's at Stake: The GOP field is wide open now that the party's three significant contests have been won by three different candidates.

Huckabee has been courting the state's large number of religious conservatives. (Roughly 40 percent of South Carolinians consider themselves evangelicals). McCain, the New Hampshire primary winner, is popular with the state's military veterans. Romney, fresh off his victory in Michigan, is running ads in the state. Thompson is hoping to play off his conservative platform and Southern roots.

Meanwhile, Giuliani is focusing instead on Florida. He has staked his candidacy on winning the state's Jan. 29 primary, then riding the momentum through the key Super Tuesday states of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, where he is well-known.

Issues: Illegal immigration is a top concern for voters here, followed closely by Iraq and terrorism. The economy is also a major concern. The Northwest corridor of the state is home to some of the country's most successful high-tech manufacturers, including automaker BMW and several German companies, but other parts of South Carolina have been hemorrhaging textile factory jobs for years.

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