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How Can Republicans And Democrats Win South Carolina?


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Scott Simon is away. Now that the circus has left Iowa and New Hampshire, it's time for the candidates to get serious. A week from today, GOP voters will go to the polls in South Carolina, and the week after that, the Democrats will take a turn. All the candidates will have to make some kind of adjustment to their campaigns. For more on what that might be, Scott Huffmon joins us. He's a political scientist at South Carolina's Winthrop University in Rock Hill. Hi, there.

SCOTT HUFFMON: Hi, how are you?

WERTHEIMER: I'm fine, and we're very glad to have you. Let me ask you about South Carolina's primary, the first in the South. This is supposed to clear out some of the underbrush and let us see which candidates are survivors, also to show us something about this region. Could you give us a thumbnail sketch of why South Carolina matters?

HUFFMON: South Carolina, because it's the first in the South, is the first test candidates face as whether or not they will have Southern appeal. And that's a big deal because the entire 11-state South makes up 59 percent of all the Electoral College votes you need to win the presidency in the general election. So if a Republican candidate in the modern era can sweep the South, they become president. But if a Democratic candidate can crack the South with two states, they become president. And South Carolina is the first test of support in this region.

WERTHEIMER: Up to this point now, we've been watching Republican voters react to Donald Trump and Republican candidates try to overtake him. Is South Carolina in 2016 in some kind of position to clarify that? Should we look for anybody to break out maybe in the GOP debate tonight, or is Trump just going to sail through South Carolina and presumably the South?

HUFFMON: Well, Trump is on a steady path to win South Carolina at the moment, but I think the biggest thing South Carolina might do is turn into the state where the establishment candidate, whoever's going to claim that lane, begin to really duke it out. In South Carolina, evangelicals are really important to the Republican presidential primary, but unlike Iowa, they don't tend to coalesce behind one candidate. At the ballot box, evangelicals tend to behave like voters rather than churchgoers. So coming into South Carolina, Ted Cruz is really trying to pull those evangelicals away from Trump, but Trump's leading even with them.

WERTHEIMER: Now for the Democrats, who go to the polls a week after the Republicans, it is a very different game.

HUFFMON: Absolutely. The ability to reach African-American voters is critical. They're going to make up more than 55 percent of the Democratic presidential primary electorate. Hillary Clinton, she's building on the ties that the Clintons have traditionally had with African-American voters. The Sanders' folks really believe that his message will be latched onto by African-Americans in South Carolina who are much more likely to have lower incomes. The problem is when the message is coming from young, liberal, white canvassers, it's not going to be listened to as well as if it comes from someone they're familiar with.

WERTHEIMER: In 2012, South Carolina did not pick the GOP nominee as the state has ever since there's been a primary. Newt Gingrich defeated Mitt Romney in South Carolina. People said South Carolina got it wrong, but you say it was a kind of warning. Could you explain that?

HUFFMON: In 2012, I, along with everybody else, just assumed that, you know, we in South Carolina got it wrong for the first time. But now that I'm watching this cycle, I'm less sure of that. What I now think is South Carolina may have been the canary in the coal mine, tapping into the anger of conservative voters. Obviously, we knew conservative voters were angry at Obama, but what I think we saw in 2012 was they were angry at the Republican establishment as well. Now we're seeing the anti-Republican establishment vote happening all across the nation or at least in the polls. So I really think South Carolina was picking up on something, and the GOP establishment didn't listen to the message.

WERTHEIMER: Scott Huffmon is a political scientist at South Carolina's Winthrop University. Thank you very much for this.

HUFFMON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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