Spartanburg, S.C. - By last Thursday, South Carolina already had received enough GOP primary absentee ballots to break a record for the total number cast in a presidential primary, set in 2008, that included both Republican and Democratic absentees. That’s how hotly contested today’s race is in the Palmetto State.
And officials statewide expect that turnout would crush previous voting records. Part of that is thanks to a six-candidate race that has been pouring money, volunteer and professional efforts and advertising into the state for months. And part of that is thanks to a booming population that has increased the number of registered voters here about 7 percent in the past four years. That steady inflow of new people into the state provides a constantly changing, tough-to-map political climate.
Today’s contests, for the GOP here and for the Democrats and their Nevada caucuses, are more likely to set the tone going forward than they are to settle questions for good. This is the biggest GOP contest yet in terms of delegates, with 50 awarded here compared to the 30 in Iowa and 23 in New Hampshire. And this is a state that where the primary has never gone to a candidate who lost the nomination, until Newt Gingrich beat Mitt Romney by a wide margin in 2012. But the 12 GOP contests on March 1 will deliver 595 delegates, which makes it hard for any halfway-credible and funded candidate to drop out after tonight’s returns no matter how badly it goes for them. So it’s a momentum battle, with Donald Trump favored to win, Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz hoping to somehow unseat him, and the others vying for the publicity scraps of a surprisingly strong showing. It’s also another test for polls that seemingly are becoming so erratic as to be little better than flipping coins or reading tea leaves in terms of predictive quality.
At noon the polling places in the white middle-class neighborhoods of Upstate South Carolina, where the greatest concentration of the state’s Republicans live, were seeing a steady stream of voters. In the Lowcountry (Charleston) and Midlands (Columbia) of the state the big contest is next Saturday, between Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders and there was reportedly less action.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson has been the subject of the ultimate primary indignity in South Carolina this week: not one candidate appears to have bothered sending out a derogatory mailer about him. That can't be said about any of the others. Mailboxes are full to overflowing with pieces from Super PACs, nearly all negative, explaining just how horrible Trump, Cruz, Rubio, Jeb Bush and John Kasich are: weak on conservative principles, just like President Barack Obama, just like Clinton, wanting to give amnesty to immigrants here illegally, weak on abortion, incapable of picking the right Supreme Court justice, et cetera.
The winner for best mailer has to be an anti-Rubio piece from Bush super PAC Right To Rise that is a 3-D hologram that blares “MARCO ON IMMIGRATION: WHO KNOWS?” It shows the Bush campaign has a lot more money than it does voter support. The Bush campaign has so much money, in fact, that it even sent out a few positive pieces about its candidate, very rare in this race.
Maybe the biggest question to be answered today is whether the 2012 Gingrich win was an aberration on a state that has traditionally opted for the mainstream choice, or the bellwether of a voting bloc finally repulsed by what the party establishment has offered. If voters here were just ahead of their time, it explains a lot about this year's Trump/Cruz rebuff of the national party establishment. And tonight’s results will show where the party is headed next.