South Carolina's Role as GOP Kingmaker Historically, the Palmetto State has been the most reliable barometer in forecasting the GOP presidential nominee. Since it was established in 1980, every winner of the South Carolina primary has gone on to become the Republican standard-bearer.
NPR logo South Carolina's Role as GOP Kingmaker

South Carolina's Role as GOP Kingmaker

Every winner of the South Carolina GOP primary has gone on to become the presidential nominee. hide caption

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Once again, a Romney wins in Michigan. Now it's on to South Carolina. hide caption

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Kennedy's entry into the '68 race infuriated supporters of Eugene McCarthy. hide caption

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Seventeen years ago today, President Bush (the first one) launches the war in Iraq (the first one). hide caption

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Saturday's primary in South Carolina may be only one part of a potentially protracted contest to determine the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, a contest that looks no closer to being decided now than it did after Iowa or New Hampshire.

And whether the Palmetto State ends or rejuvenates a candidacy or two on the 19th — probably no one needs a boost more than Fred Thompson, who has yet to win anywhere — there is no question that, historically at least, it is the most reliable barometer in forecasting the GOP nominee. Since it was established in 1980, every winner of the South Carolina primary has gone on to become the Republican standard-bearer. What follows is a brief review of each primary the state held. (Note: There were no GOP contests in South Carolina in 1984 or 2004, when Presidents Reagan and Bush, respectively, ran unopposed for the nomination.)

1980 (March 8)

Republican influence in South Carolina had been growing since Sen. Strom Thurmond switched to the GOP in 1964; in 1974, James Edwards was elected the state's first Republican governor since Reconstruction. But it was the efforts of party operatives like Lee Atwater and Harry Dent that not only created the South Carolina primary in 1980 but also made sure it was the first test in the South. In 1980, it was the focus of a battle between forces supporting former California Gov. Ronald Reagan and ex-Democratic Gov. John Connally of Texas, a Nixon favorite who switched to the GOP in 1973. Connally started out the campaign spending freely, winning over people like Thurmond, a true folk hero in the state, and Edwards (who had both been for Reagan in '76). But Connally found himself quickly running out of steam, and money, and suddenly South Carolina became his make-or-break state. Adding to his problems, his campaign got embroiled with that of another candidate who was trying to win over anti-Reagan Republicans, George H.W. Bush. The former Texas congressman (and winner of the Iowa caucuses) had the support of the canny and controversial Dent, who leaked a memo suggesting that Connally was supportive of gay rights; a later Bush memo suggested that Connally was considering payments to black ministers to get out the vote. Those wouldn't be the last dirty tricks in South Carolina presidential politics, but they were enough to keep the Connally and Bush camps sniping at each other, and leaving Reagan to appear above the fray. Reagan, whose state organization was led by Atwater (who, if memory serves, was aghast at Bush's campaign tactics) and freshman Rep. Carroll Campbell, won the primary decisively, and Connally dropped out of the race the next day. Results: Reagan 55%, Connally 30%, Bush 15%.

1988 (March 5)

The results of the 1980 primary seemed to teach a lesson to George H.W. Bush, who by 1988 was the loyal vice president to a very popular president. A moderate alternative to Reagan in 1980, he ran as the "second coming" of Reagan eight years later. Bush's national campaign manager was Lee Atwater. His state campaign manager was Carroll Campbell, by now the governor. All the stars seemed aligned in his corner. Even the endorsement by Thurmond of Sen. Bob Dole, Bush's main rival for the nomination, mattered little. Even when Bush finished third to Dole in the Iowa caucuses the month before, the word was that South Carolina would be his "firewall." It was. Bush's easy victory over Dole and the Rev. Pat Robertson set the tone for Bush's 16-state Super Tuesday primary sweep three days later that all but sealed the deal. Results: Bush 48.5%, Dole 21%, Robertson 19%, Rep. Jack Kemp (NY) 11.5%.

1992 (March 7)

The first President Bush's prospects for renomination were never thought to be at risk going into the 1992 primaries, but there was a large segment of the GOP — perhaps as much as a third — thought to be dissatisfied with his policies on taxes and the economy. Conservatives were most disappointed, claiming that Bush sold out on both. An unimpressive winner in New Hampshire over Pat Buchanan, the TV commentator and former Nixon aide, Bush nonetheless knew he had, as in '88, a firewall in South Carolina. Once again, the Bush state campaign was placed in the hands of Gov. Campbell. And this time, his opponents were not members of Congress or the establishment, but angry populists/nativists like Buchanan and David Duke, the ex-Klansman from Louisiana. Results: Bush 67%, Buchanan 26%, Duke 7%.

1996 (March 2)

Bob Dole may have been the Republican front-runner for 1996, his third bid for the nomination, but his lead was very tenuous. He won the Iowa caucuses by a much closer than expected margin over Pat Buchanan, and he even lost New Hampshire to Buchanan as well. Steve Forbes, a millionaire magazine publisher, then won the primaries in Delaware and Arizona. Going into South Carolina, it seemed, on paper, that Buchanan could do well, given his opposition to the free-trade policies that he said hurt the state. But there was that "firewall" word again. With the backing of the entire state GOP establishment — ex-Gov. Campbell, then-current Gov. David Beasley and Thurmond — Dole righted his ship and his once-bumpy ride to the nomination straightened out. Results: Dole 45%, Buchanan 29%, publisher Steve Forbes 13%, ex-Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander 10%, activist Alan Keyes 2%.

2000 (Feb. 19)

It was like old times: a Bush needing a victory in South Carolina to stop the hemorrhaging. But this time it was a different Bush — George W., the governor of Texas, son of the 41st president, who was the choice of the party establishment. Trounced by Arizona Sen. John McCain in the New Hampshire primary, there were questions as to whether Bush had the right stuff. But when the contest went south, and into the Bible Belt, there was no question about the outcome. McCain's Straight Talk turned into Ill-Advised Talk, describing two prominent conservative Christians, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, as "agents of intolerance," and criticizing Bush's appearance at Bob Jones University in S.C. The Bush camp effectively spun the McCain attacks as attacks on all evangelicals. But that wasn't all. Bush supporters passed out leaflets about Cindy McCain's past addiction to painkillers, and there were "push poll" phone calls claiming that McCain had an illegitimate black lovechild (when in reality the McCains had adopted a daughter from a Bangladesh orphanage). It was the beginning of the end of the McCain campaign. Results: Bush 53%, McCain 42%, Keyes 4.5%

And now, your questions, starting with two on the Iowa caucuses:

Q: Regarding the results in Iowa, I've seen lots of percentage breakdowns, but I'm confused by the vote totals for the candidates. A friend of mine says that John McCain and Rudy Giuliani each received more actual votes than Barack Obama. Given the record turnout for the Democrats, how is that possible? - David Moskowitz, Virginia Beach, Va.

Q: Great job on the Iowa caucuses video! One thing confuses me, however. Do the percentages listed for each candidate on the Democratic side indicate the totals of the first vote before the changes that result from some candidates not getting to the 15 percent threshold in some precincts? Or are the percentages shown the ones for the final count? - Ron Merlo, Glendale, Calif.

A: The GOP totals are easy to understand; Iowa Republicans participated as if it were a straw poll, with folks just showing up and indicating their preference. The Democrats release weighted votes, not raw votes, translatable into county convention delegates. And the totals they release are of what transpired after voters switched to their second choice if their original choice failed to reach a specific threshold. (Hopefully, I've confused you even more.) So we never know for sure how many votes each candidate actually received. The party says 227,000 participated in the Dem caucuses, but there's no breakdown like there is on the GOP side.

Here are the weighted results for the Democrats in Iowa's Jan. 3 caucuses:

Barack Obama           940           38%
John Edwards             744           30
Hillary Clinton             737           29
Bill Richardson             53            2
Joe Biden                     23            1
Uncommitted                 3             0
Chris Dodd                     1            0

And these are the raw numbers on the GOP side:

Mike Huckabee       40,841           34%
Mitt Romney           29,949           25
Fred Thompson       15,904           13
John McCain           15,559           13
Ron Paul                 11,817           10          
Rudy Giuliani             4,097            4
Duncan Hunter             524             1

As for the Iowa caucus video, which Junkie junkies can see here, Mike Vermillion of Murfreesboro, Tenn., makes an important point: "You said [in the video] that a difference between caucuses and primaries is the openness of the caucus system, whereas in primaries your vote has always been private. Actually, the secret ballot is a relatively recent development. The so-called 'Australian ballot' didn't come to the U.S. until the 1880s, in some states not until the 1890s. Before that you had to vote orally or on ballot sheets printed by the candidate so that the ward boss knew he was getting his money's worth."

Q: You listed in your Dec. 19 column those major figures of one party who endorsed presidential candidates of another party. You noted Sen. Zell Miller's (D-GA) endorsement of President Bush in 2004, but you left out former Michigan Gov. Bill Milliken's (R) backing of John Kerry that same year. - Gary Gillette, Detroit

A: Actually, the column you cite listed incumbent members of Congress who broke from their party to endorse a presidential candidate. Milliken was a former governor when he backed Kerry in '04.

Milliken, of course, was George Romney's lieutenant governor, and when Romney was tapped by President Nixon to join his Cabinet in 1969, Milliken moved up to the governorship. But he is backing John McCain this year, not Romney's son Mitt, for the presidency. (A more severe jab at a former running mate came last week when Kerry endorsed not John Edwards but Barack Obama.)

Q: Robert Kennedy may be this revered figure to your grace and other likeminded people, but did he in fact not crash the Eugene McCarthy momentum after McCarthy's much-stronger-than-expected showing against LBJ? Not to revile him too much, but was Kennedy not being obtusely opportunistic then? - Nicholas Ohh, London, England

A: You are no doubt referring to a comment I made in the Dec. 12 column. I was asked to recommend a book on Bobby Kennedy, and I wrote that RFK "is one of those people I cannot read enough about. I am fascinated about his life, especially the last five tortured years." I never said he was a "revered" figure or anything like that. And yes, when he decided to run for president just four days after McCarthy's strong showing against President Johnson in the 1968 New Hampshire primary, Kennedy was hit hard with charges of ruthlessness and opportunism, and they were warranted.

YOU ASK, WE DELIVER: The Nov. 15 column ran an intriguing question by Ruth Lezotte of Okemos, Mich., inquiring about what kind of health-care plans each presidential candidate used for his or her own medical needs. The question bloomed into a full on-air piece by health care correspondent Julie Rovner that ran on Morning Edition on Jan. 14.


Jan. 19 - Nevada caucuses; South Carolina Republican primary.

Jan. 21 - Democratic presidential candidates debate, Myrtle Beach, S.C. (CNN/Congressional Black Caucus).

Jan. 24 - Republican presidential candidates debate, Boca Raton, Fla. (MSNBC).

Jan. 26 - South Carolina Democratic primary.

Jan. 27 - Democratic presidential candidates debate, Boca Raton, Fla. (MSNBC).

Jan. 29 - Florida primary.

Jan. 30 - Republican presidential candidates debate, Reagan Library, Simi Valley, Calif. (CNN/Los Angeles Times/Politico).

Jan. 31 - Democratic presidential candidates debate, Los Angeles (CNN/Los Angeles Times/Politico).

IF IT'S WEDNESDAY, IT'S "JUNKIE" TIME ON TOTN: Don't forget to listen to the "Political Junkie" segment every Wednesday on Talk of the Nation, NPR's live call-in program, starting at 2 p.m. Eastern time and running 40 glorious minutes. This week: Mitt Romney's victory in Michigan and a look ahead to Saturday's contests in Nevada and South Carolina. Remember, if your local NPR station doesn't carry TOTN, you can hear the program on the Web.

IT'S ALL POLITICS: That's the name of our weekly political podcast. It's a combination of brilliant analysis and sophisticated humor, hosted each week by NPR's Ron Elving and myself. It goes up on the Web site every Thursday and can be heard here. It's become increasingly popular each week, but in the fairness of full exposure, there are some fans out there who are clearly losing touch with reality.

Mark Schwager of East Greenwich, R.I., writes, "Recently I've been listening to each podcast twice to absorb the full humor and insight. Do I need to get a life? And if I listen two times, does that mean you have two listeners? P.S. I Googled your recent allusion to George Romney and brainwashing, and was even able to view the original interview online!"

David Ogden of Walnut Creek, Calif., with "Embarrassed" on the subject line: "Yes, I'm embarrassed that I listened to your latest podcast three times, and even after the third time, I still snickered out loud at many of the lines, your wit and your humor. The interplay between you and Ron is so fun. How about doing an hour instead of 10 minutes?" (Rudin note: We haven't had a podcast run under 10 minutes since the June 6 episode! In fact, the last nine episodes have all been longer than 16 minutes, which is either good news or bad news.)

At least this is good news, courtesy of Larry Mattivi of Broomes Island, Md.: "At the young age of 50, I am trying to keep up with the tech tsunami. So, I bought my wife an iPod for Christmas. While downloading the software provided free from Apple — iTunes — to my laptop, I realized something that seems so fundamental: YOU DO NOT NEED TO OWN AN IPOD TO LISTEN TO YOUR PODCAST! Little did I know that the convenience of on-demand listening to 'It's All Politics' was as close as my laptop! No iPod required! I am feeling much more connected!"

******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please don't forget to include your city and state. *********

This day in political history: President Bush announces that U.S. forces are sent into battle against Iraq in "Operation Desert Storm" (Jan. 16, 1991). Within two days, both the Senate (98-0) and the House (399-6) will vote to support the president's actions.

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: