Consider this: The GOP primary begins in Iowa on January 15th. New Hampshire votes the following week, possibly January 23rd. Then there’s a long gap all the way to South Carolina. While Nevada Republicans might hold their caucuses before or immediately after South Carolina, the wider array of voters and delegates from South Carolina focused much more attention on the Palmetto state.
That calendar isn’t official yet, since only South Carolina and Iowa (which announced their caucus date hours after this column originally went live) have actually set the dates. But the more likely scenario is now a historically long run-up to the notoriously turbulent South Carolina primary, raising the stakes even higher to compete there.
That could turn the state into a game changer for preferred son-and-daughter candidates, Senator Tim Scott and former Governor Nikki Haley. It also ups the ante for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose campaign celebrated the state GOP’s decision to schedule the primary for a later date than initially anticipated.
Trump’s lead in South Carolina is sizable, but there is an opening for his challengers. Two polls last month by Republican polling companies it gave the former president an identical 23-point lead over DeSantis. But Trump was also on 41 percent — a lower share than national polls and most other top states — thanks largely to Scott and Haley who each got about 10 percent of the vote.
The challenge for DeSantis, Scott and Haley is to consolidate the non-Trump vote behind only themselves. In each of the two polls, their combined share of the vote was slightly lower than Trump’s.
When we last looked into the ongoing machinations of the GOP presidential primary calendar, it appeared that Republicans in South Carolina could hold a primary as early as late January, the week after New Hampshire. But three weeks ago, state GOP officials chose February 24 instead, maximizing the state’s impact on the nomination process, but also making it potentially harder for candidates to survive poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire.
For those candidates who bet on better results when the race moves south, like Scott and Haley, it now becomes even more imperative to finish in the top three in Iowa or New Hampshire to keep their campaigns afloat.
« South Carolinas are not going to reward Nikki Haley or Tim Scott just for being from South Carolina, » former state GOP executive director Alex Stroman told my colleague Natalie Allison. « They have to demonstrate feasibility elsewhere. »
The campaigns remain agile, as the primary dates are still uncertain. Nachama Soloveichik, spokesperson for Haley’s campaign, said he was « very excited to be campaigning in every state, » including Nevada and South Carolina in the weeks following the New Hampshire primary.
“We will get to work whatever the timetable is,” Soloveichik said.
You don’t have to look back in history to see South Carolina serve as a stepping stone to a presidential hopeful. Current President Joe Biden finished fourth in Iowa, fifth in New Hampshire and second in Nevada before winning the 2020 South Carolina Democratic primary. Three days later, on Super Tuesday, the date on which most states he holds the primaries and the most delegates are at stake: Biden won 10 of 15 states and territories and was on track for the nomination.
This time, there will be an extra week between South Carolina on February 24 and Super Tuesday on March 5, although Michigan may move its primary to fit between those dates.
South Carolina’s role in the modern GOP nomination process dates back to 1980, when party leaders sought to overturn decades of Democratic dominance by elevating the state’s importance into the primary order. South Carolina has since voted Republican for president in every election.
While the exact order of states changed from election cycle to election cycle, South Carolina has usually played a pivotal role in the primaries. In seven competitive primaries since 1980, Iowa and New Hampshire have never picked the same winner unless there was an incumbent GOP president running for renomination. But in six of those seven cycles, South Carolina has voted for the eventual candidate. That’s a record better than Iowa (2 for 7) or New Hampshire (5 for 7).
Gibbs Knotts, a professor at the College of Charleston and co-author of a 2020 book on the South Carolina primary, said the state has served as a « tie » between Iowa and New Hampshire in recent cycles.
« When you’ve typically finished third and you’re so successful, we think it’s more than just fluke, » Knotts said. « We think that’s the type of voter you find in South Carolina. »
Knotts and her co-author, Jordan Ragusa, examined the demographic and attitudinal mix of GOP primary voters in South Carolina, looking at determining factors such as race, ideology, and the share of evangelical or born-again Christians. They found that only two states were more representative of national Republicans: Missouri and Ohio.
Iowa may be the first, but the last caucus winner to clinch the GOP nomination was George W. Bush in 2000. That same year, John McCain beat Bush in New Hampshire, only for Bush to return the favor in an infamous scorched-land campaign in South Carolina, dashing McCain’s vague hopes.
Since then, winning Iowa has been functionally a curse. McCain made his comeback in South Carolina in 2008, beating Iowa caucus winner Mike Huckabee. In 2012, South Carolina voted for Newt Gingrich, extending Mitt Romney’s eventual path to the nomination but also denying Rick Santorum a second win to go along with Iowa.
And in 2016, after Ted Cruz surged to victory in Iowa, Trump’s back-to-back victories in New Hampshire and South Carolina made him the favorite for the nomination.
This time around, another Trump victory in South Carolina could be a death knell for his rivals, especially given Trump’s strength (and DeSantis’ early struggles) in New Hampshire. Or it could signal — with Super Tuesday looming just nine days later — that the former president has real competition for the nomination. Either way, South Carolina will be key, probably more so than ever.
Natalie Allison contributed to this report.