Consider this: The GOP primary begins in Iowa on Jan. 15. New Hampshire votes the following week, possibly Jan. 23. Then there’s a long gap to South Carolina. While Republicans in Nevada might hold their caucuses before or immediately after South Carolina, South Carolina’s larger number of voters and delegates have focused much more attention on Palmetto State.
That schedule is still unofficial, as only South Carolina and Iowa (who announced their caucus dates hours after this column was originally published) have actually set dates. But the likeliest scenario now is a historically long run to South Carolina’s notoriously choppy primary, further raising the stakes for competition there.
It could turn the state into a deal breaker for favorite son-and-daughter candidates Sen. Tim Scott and former Gov. Nikki Haley. It also ups the ante for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, whose campaign celebrated the state’s GOP decision to schedule the primary for a later date than originally scheduled.
Trump’s lead in South Carolina is considerable, but there is an opening for his challengers. Two polls conducted last month by Republican polling firms gave the former president an identical 23-point lead over DeSantis. But Trump was also at 41% — a lower share than national polls and most other early-state polls — thanks mainly to Scott and Haley each getting about 10% of the vote.
The challenge for DeSantis, Scott and Haley is to shore up the non-Trump vote behind themselves. In each of the two surveys, their combined vote share was slightly lower than Trump’s.
When we last looked at the ongoing machinations of the GOP presidential primary schedule, it appeared Republicans in South Carolina could hold their primary as early as late January, the week after New Hampshire. But three weeks ago, state GOP officials chose Feb. 24 instead, maximizing the state’s impact on the nominating process but also potentially making it harder for candidates to survive bad weather. performances in Iowa and New Hampshire.
For candidates betting on better results when the race moves south – like Scott and Haley – it now becomes even more imperative to land in the top three in Iowa or New Hampshire in order to keep their campaigns going. flow.
“South Carolina won’t reward Nikki Haley or Tim Scott just for being from South Carolina,” Alex Stroman, the state’s former GOP executive director, told my colleague Natalie Allison. “They need to prove their viability elsewhere.”
The campaigns remain agile, since the first dates are still uncertain. Nachama Soloveichik, spokesperson for Haley’s campaign, said they were “very excited to be campaigning in all states” including Nevada and South Carolina in the weeks following the New Hampshire primary.
“We’re going to work regardless of the schedule,” Soloveichik said.
You don’t have to go far back in history to see South Carolina act as a springboard for a presidential hopeful. Current President Joe Biden finished fourth in Iowa, fifth in New Hampshire and second in Nevada before claiming victory in the 2020 South Carolina Democratic primary. Three days later, Super Tuesday – the date at which most states hold 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 Feb. 24 and Super Tuesday on March 5, although Michigan may move its primary between those dates.
South Carolina’s role in the modern GOP nominating process dates back to 1980, when party leaders sought to overturn decades of Democratic dominance by elevating the state’s prominence in the primary order. Since then, South Carolina has elected a Republican for president in every election.
While the exact order of states changed from one election cycle to the next, South Carolina generally played a central role in the primary. In seven competitive primaries since 1980, Iowa and New Hampshire have never picked the same winner unless an incumbent GOP president runs for renomination. But in six of those seven cycles, South Carolina has voted for the eventual nominee. That’s a better record than Iowa (2 for 7) or New Hampshire (5 for 7).
Gibbs Knotts, a College of Charleston professor and co-author of a 2020 book on the South Carolina primary, said the state served as a “tiebreaker” between Iowa and New Hampshire in the during the last cycles.
“When you’re usually third and successful, we think it’s more than just a fluke,” Knotts said. “We think that’s the type of voters who are in South Carolina.”
Knotts and his co-author, Jordan Ragusa, examined the demographic and behavioral mix of GOP primary voters in South Carolina, examining 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 might be the first, but the last caucus winner to win 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-earth campaign in South Carolina – snuffing out McCain’s faint hopes.
Since then, winning Iowa has been functionally a curse. McCain was redeemed in South Carolina in 2008, beating Iowa caucus winner Mike Huckabee. In 2012, South Carolina voted for Newt Gingrich, extending Mitt Romney’s eventual run to the nomination but also denying Rick Santorum a second victory to accompany Iowa.
And in 2016, after Ted Cruz claimed victory in Iowa, Trump’s back-to-back wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina established him as the frontrunner for the nomination.
This time, another victory for Trump in South Carolina could spell the end 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 crucial, probably more than ever.
Natalie Allison contributed to this report.