South Carolina is up next on the primary schedule. It is a larger electorate (more than 440,000 voters turned out for the 2008 GOP contest), and while the evangelical population is large, in 2008 40 percent of the voters were not born-again Christians. It is a solidly conservative state: Last time 69 percent identified as conservative. (In New Hampshire only 53 percent identified as conservative.) And the independent vote is small (only 18 percent in 2008).
All of that translates into a very different terrain for the candidates than what they encountered in New Hampshire. South Carolina is essentially a non-starter for Jon Huntsman. Only 10 percent of his votes in New Hampshire came from actual Republicans. South Carolina has not been friendly to Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) either. He garnered only 4 percent of the vote last time.
Mitt Romney came in fourth with only 15 percent of the vote in 2008. But unlike in 2008 when he had Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to compete for centrist Republicans and to collect the military vote (about a quarter of the electorate), Romney will have plenty of room to scoop up these voters. Sixty-one percent of the vote last time came from the suburbs, and there is where Romney is likely to do well.
Before he flopped in Iowa and New Hampshire and attacked venture capitalism as “vulture capitalism,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry might have been expected to do well. But he is quickly becoming a subject of derision. Even the conservative-friendly Sean Hannity roughed him up last night:
It is obvious Perry has not a clue what Bain actually does. Perhaps he’d do well to consult with Rush Limbaugh or The Post’s editorial page. In any event, I suspect that won’t play well among the very voters to whom he must appeal. His military service, however, may give him a connection to active-duty service people and veterans.
Then there is Rick Santorum, who in this race has been compared to Mike Huckabee. In 2008 Huckabee drew nearly 30 percent of the vote, against a field that frankly had more viable candidates than the current one does. Huckabee was battling with Romney and Fred Thompson for the conservative base that was to the right of McCain. Santorum’s competition this time around will be a flagging Perry and Newt Gingrich, who has been lambasted by everyone on the right from the National Review editors to the Club for Growth and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) for what Romney called the politics of envy. That gives Santorum wide berth to scoop up the voters who in 2008 split among Romney, Huckabee and Thompson (a total of 61 percent of the electorate).
In sum, Romney has huge advantages and a great deal of momentum going into South Carolina. Right now he is leading the pack by double digits in pre-New Hampshire polls. In a few days we will know how big a bounce he’s gotten and how steep the hill to climb for Santorum will be.