SPARTANBURG, S.C. - Sports pros say that to understand what’s going on in a game, you must look away from the ball. While the TV camera and casual fan’s attention are firmly fixed on the quarterback, it’s the jockeying downfield that often decides the game.
Presidential races are the same. Or at least that’s the analogy that comes to mind in a state overrun with political advertising and obsessed with the Carolina Panthers, as South Carolina was until Sunday’s horror/snorer Super Bowl that left Cam Newton sulkier than Donald Trump at a Bush family reunion.
The focus Tuesday is on the New Hampshire primary. But what’s going on in South Carolina right now is more telling.
In South Carolina, where the GOP primaries will be held Feb. 20, you can tell by the commercials, phone banks, yard signs and door-to-door operations which candidates still have enough money and post-New Hampshire organization to meaningfully continue running.
Regardless of the outcome Tuesday, by those South Carolina measures, the campaigns of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, retired surgeon Ben Carson, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and ex-executive Carly Fiorina are over. No amount of “momentum” gained by a good showing in New Hampshire will overcome the fact that they are silent on the airwaves of the Palmetto State and have no significant buzz or staff. Only businessman Donald Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush have the money to make a stand here and the organizations to move forward after South Carolina.
And this state is crucial. No Republican who lost the South Carolina primary has ever been elected president. We used to say no Republican who lost the South Carolina primary had ever won the nomination, but then came Newt Gingrich in 2012; darn him for making it complicated.
How Trump, Cruz, Rubio and Bush do here will set the table for the “SEC primary” portion of Super Tuesday on March 1, when more than a dozen states, about half in the South, conduct polls and caucuses. The candidate who wins South Carolina might not go on to win the nomination, but the candidates who fare badly certainly won’t.
On Feb. 27, one week after South Carolina’s GOP primary, Democrats in the state will answer central questions that haven’t been addressed in vastly white New Hampshire or Iowa: Who’s going to win the black vote and by how much?
Asked off the record whether Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders or former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has the inside track among black voters, political operatives in South Carolina have no idea. Both candidates are well-funded and have large organizations. Sanders is clearly addressing the black vote with ads that open on his participation in Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington.
African-American voters were good to Bill Clinton when he ran, but Barack Obama crushed Hillary here in 2008, and it was the beginning of the end of her campaign. Bill’s statement that Jesse Jackson had won the state in 1984 and 1988 enraged many black voters because it was taken to mean blacks would vote for any black person. That’s a fascinating assertion now, when Hillary has proxies like Madeleine Albright painting female support of Clinton as a matter of gender honor.
In South Carolina, the black vote could be 60 percent of the Democratic turnout. Clinton leads South Carolina in the RealClearPolitics average of polls by 30 points. If Sanders outperforms expectations, his candidacy will continue to upend the notion that Clinton’s nomination is inevitable — just as Obama’s win did in the 2008 primary.
It’s exciting that New Hampshire’s primaries have arrived, but they won’t determine the eventual winners, and they might not even hint at them. South Carolina will likely do both.
Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.