Sen. Tim Scott, who evidently has not received the memo explaining that politics is a grim and bitter business, laughs easily and often, as when, during lunch in this city’s humming downtown, he explains that South Carolina’s Lowcountry is benefiting from what are called “halfbacks.” These are migrants who moved from Northern states to Florida in search of warmth but, finding high prices and congestion, then moved halfway back, settling in South Carolina. Doing so, they have located in the state where, Scott believes and history suggests, the 2016 Republican presidential nomination will begin to come to closure.
Since picking Ronald Reagan over John Connally and George H.W. Bush in 1980, South Carolina’s Republican primary electorate has sided with the eventual nominee every four years, with the exception of 2012, when Newt Gingrich from neighboring Georgia was rewarded for denouncing as “despicable” a journalist’s question during a debate here. This year, South Carolina votes just 10 days before the selection of convention delegates accelerates with the March 1 “SEC primary,” so named because five of the 12 primaries that day are in Southern states represented in that football conference.
The Human Snarl, a.k.a. Donald Trump, is leading polls here, where South Carolinians share the national consensus that, in Scott’s mild words, “however it is today is not the way it should be.” But it remains to be seen whether Republicans will vote for Trump while so warmly embracing the senator who is his stylistic antithesis. Scott is “an unbridled optimist” (his description) who thinks Republican chances in 2016 depend on whether their nominee is an “aspirational leader” or someone “selling fear.” Scott’s un-Trumpian demeanor is both a cause and an effect of his popularity: He was elected with 61 percent of the vote last year to complete the term of a senator who resigned. Which is why 13 of the Republican presidential candidates have eagerly accepted his invitations to hold town meetings with him. He took Ohio Gov. John Kasich to Hilton Head because it has so many Ohioans, some of them halfbacks. All the candidates covet Scott’s endorsement, which will happen only if, as the Feb. 20 vote draws near, polls show a close race, perhaps a four-point difference between the leaders.
This could be a choice between two of Scott’s Senate colleagues, Florida’s Marco Rubio and Texas’s Ted Cruz. If, he says, South Carolinians choose well — “not sending independents fleeing in the opposite direction” — the United States will be en route to a Republican presidency.
Scott, 50, became a congressman by defeating in a Republican primary the son of Strom Thurmond, the Dixiecrat presidential candidate in 1948 and then eight-term U.S. senator. In 2013, Scott became the second African American Republican senator since Reconstruction (Ed Brooke of Massachusetts was the first), and today he and New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker are the Senate’s only African Americans.
Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, whose specialty is conservative politics, says that among the four states that vote in February (the others are Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada), South Carolina’s electorate “best mirrors the nation’s.”
Writing for National Review Online, Olsen says the state’s primary electorate closely reflects the national balance among the GOP’s four factions — “moderates and liberals” (32 percent), “somewhat conservatives” (32 percent), “very conservative evangelicals” (28 percent) and “very conservative seculars” (6 percent). Iowa, says Olsen, favors candidates who are very religious and conservative, New Hampshire favors moderates, Nevada favors conservative seculars. Here, however, a dominant cohort is that which Olsen calls the national party’s “ballast” — the “somewhat conservatives.”
South Carolina’s primary 11 weeks from now will be as distant from the state’s 1980 primary that chose Reagan as Reagan’s first presidential victory later that year was from Franklin Roosevelt’s last victory in 1944. And when South Carolina voted in 1980, the huge and still growing Boeing plant in North Charleston, the investment by Mercedes to build a plant in North Charleston and the BMW plant in Spartanburg were still in its future. As were the halfbacks who are another reason South Carolina no longer has stereotypical Deep South demographics.
And why whichever Republican wins here will have done so in the first 2016 contest that approximates the electorates of the swing states that will determine the 45th president. This fact must be deeply satisfying to 43-year-old Nikki Haley, South Carolina’s Indian American governor, and to Scott, who was born 44 days after enactment of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that made all of this possible.