Will South Carolina Lose Its Primary?

Will South Carolina Lose Its Primary?

South Carolina Republicans’ zeal for budget-cutting may deprive them of their quadrennial turn in the spotlight.


In a surprisingly little-noticed story earlier this week The State of Columbia, South Carolina, reported, “South Carolina’s much-watched first-in-the-South Republican presidential primary could become a far less important first-in-the-South caucus.” The problem is that the state’s Republican state government is seeking to balance its budget entirely through spending cuts. And so, in a fit of impressive if foolish consistency, Governor Nikki Haley opposes shelling out $1.5 million for the Republican primary. “We need to focus on core functions of government, and the presidential primary—which was until recently always paid for by the parties, not the taxpayer—simply doesn’t fall into that category,” says Bob Godfrey, Haley’s spokesman. Without state funding, the state GOP may need to hold a caucus, because an actual primary requires expensive vote-counting technology that only the state owns.

An early primary is an excellent example of a public good. It extends something important to citizens (the power to influence a party’s presidential nomination) and generates economic activity (visits from candidates, volunteers and media). But no private enterprise will want to pay for it, nor should a private company be empowered to control a political primary. Unfortunately for Republicans, they don’t believe in public goods. The only spending Republicans care for is the type where a wealthy, organized interest benefits greatly. (Think military contracts.) If the beneficiaries are many diffuse individuals who don’t make enough to reward the favor with campaign contributions, then Republicans have no use for it.

South Carolina Republican party officials and political consultants are apoplectic, complaining that a caucus would not generate as much national interest as a primary. In principle that ought to be the case, since caucuses restrict turnout by forcing people to come during a set evening time frame and hang around for several hours. Single parents, night shift workers, night-time students and the disabled are among the widely disenfranchised as a result. Alas, the undemocratic Iowa caucus, where turnout is a fraction of the subsequent primary in New Hampshire, remains a media fixation.

But, assuming the negative predictions came true, that would be a delicious irony for South Carolina Republicans to actually reap what their miserliness has sown.

Another irony is that conventional wisdom in South Carolina holds that the high-profile primary is a source of positive attention for the state, and losing it would be lamentable. As The State writes, “The state also would lose national exposure, prestige and millions of dollars that campaigns, media and others spend during the event.”

The primary looks quite different to Northern eyes. Shining a light on the South Carolina politics has a tendency to reinforce the worst images of Southern Republicans. This is the state that produced segregationist Strom Thurmond, Representative Joe “You Lie” Wilson, Governor Mark “Hiking the Appalachian Trail” Sanford and his Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer, who compared welfare to feeding stray animals. But they were all topped last year by State Senator Jake Knotts, who referred to President Obama and Haley, who is Indian-American, as “ragheads.”

The primary brings attention to the machinations of South Carolina’s Republican operatives, who since South Carolinian Lee Atwater, have been renowned for their race-baiting smears. In 2000, Senator John McCain was undermined in South Carolina by false rumors that he had fathered an illegitimate black child. (This was before it came to light that Thurmond had done exactly that.) Perhaps a lower-profile caucus would actually help South Carolina’s national image.

On the other hand, as any veteran observer of the Iowa caucuses can tell you, events that lower turnout to the most dedicated core of activists have a tendency to tilt the electorate toward extremes. In Iowa’s Republican caucus religious social conservatives enjoy a large influence, which is why Mike Huckabee won there in 2008 and Michele Bachmann is considered a threat to win there in 2012. An even more extremist South Carolina Republican electorate, if such a thing is possible, wouldn’t reflect especially well on the state.

It would have major implications for the race, such as helping social conservatives like Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum, while hurting Jon Huntsman who, unlike Mitt Romney, is planning on contesting South Carolina. So when the South Carolina budget is passed, Huntsman may need to redraw his electoral map.

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