In case you haven’t heard, South Carolina has the first presidential primary in the South — and we’re really proud of it. Sometimes it’s difficult to find a political news story that doesn’t mention the Palmetto State’s reputation for choosing the eventual nominee, and the state Republican Party has even given itself the self-important motto “We pick presidents.”
But is the state’s first-in-the-South status really as big of a deal as party officials and political journalists make it out to be?
South Carolina held its first primary in 1980, according to state Sen. John Courson, who helped a group of fellow Reagan supporters organize the contest in order to help Reagan win the Palmetto State. Courson and the Reaganites didn’t like how the brokered 1976 convention favored incumbent Gerald Ford, and (correctly) hoped a primary would give Reagan all of the state’s delegates.
Since then, the state has held four contested primaries. In all but one, there has either been a clear frontrunner when South Carolinians went to the polls (2000), or the state voted in accordance with many other states during ‘Super Week’ (1988 and 1996). In the one primary where South Carolina picked an upset, Sen. John McCain in 2008, the nominee went on to be trounced in the general election.
Overall interest in South Carolina’s primary seems to have waned over the past few election cycles. Political blogger Brad Warthen told NBC News campaigns appear to be “going through the motions” in South Carolina, and Palmetto State voters seem to be equally uninterested. About 57% of likely voters do not strongly support a candidate, according to a recent NBC/Marist poll, despite the primary being less than a month away.
The same poll shows Newt Gingrich with a commanding lead over Mitt Romney in the Palmetto State, even with his poll numbers in free-fall elsewhere in the country. If South Carolina does pick Gingrich, there’s a chance his numbers could rebound and solidify the state’s bellwether status. But if Gingrich wins South Carolina yet loses the nomination, the state’s strongly-emphasized reputation for picking the eventual nominee could be significantly damaged.
Indeed, there’s a distinct possibility this could be the last election cycle where we hear much about the “first in the South.”