"I think...we're a little crazy and cantankerous, and we're always sort of different in throwing a monkey wrench in the machinery, but fundamentally I think we're a pretty good reflection of America."
                                                                 --Phil Noble


South Carolina has held the first-in-the-South Republican presidential primary since 1980, and state Republicans are proud of the primary (1, 2).  Democrats have less experience with the South Carolina presidential primary.  In 2004 the primary was relatively early, on February 3, and Sen. John Edwards, the Southerner in the race, won.  In 2006 the Democratic National Committee voted to add South Carolina as a new pre-window primary, thus reinforcing the state's early position.  In 2020 South Carolina was the fourth contest, after Iowa (Feb. 3), New Hampshire (Feb. 11), and Nevada (Feb. 22), and it was to have a decisive effect on race for the Democratic nomination.

A Varied State

The Palmetto State has an estimated population of over 5.1 million as of July 2019 (+).  Its 46 counties stretch from the Coastal Plain to the Piedmont Plateau (Pee Dee) to the Blue Ridge Mountains.  There are stark differences.  Upstate is a strong area for social conservatives.  For example, Bob Jones University, known as "The Buckle on the Bible Belt," is located in Greenville.  In historic Charleston, one finds stately mansions and a genteel atmosphere, attracting many tourists.  The Census Bureau estimates 27.3% of South Carolina's population are Black or African American, but in nine counties the Black or African American population is over 50%, topped by Allendale County at 72.9%.  At the other extreme in Pickens County the Black or African American population is 6.8%.  There is also a significant veterans population; veterans account for 9.3% of the state's population compared to 7.3% nationally >.  The Census Bureau reports that the Myrtle Beach-Conway-North Myrtle Beach, SC-NC Metropolitan Area showed the second fastest percentage growth of any Metropolitan Area in the country, 32.0%, from 2010 to 2019 (>).

Racial politics still form a strong undercurrent in South Carolina.  The Confederate battle flag flew atop the Capitol Dome in Columbia until 2000, when, after considerable debate, it was relegated to a flagpole at the Confederate Soldier Monument on the Statehouse grounds.  Not until July 10, 2015 was the flag finally removed from the grounds altogether.  Scars from the murder of nine black churchgoers at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston on June 17, 2015 still linger.

The weather can also be a factor in South Carolina.  In early October 2015 Hurricane Joaquin and other weather systems converged to produce a "1-in-1,000 year rain event" which led to record rainfalls and massive flooding in the state.  Subsequent years have seen damaging storms as well: Matthew in 2016, Irma in 2017 and Florence in 2018.

Addressing the 2016 South Carolina primary, Kendra Stewart, professor at the College of Charleston, stated, "South Carolina can be expected to do the unexpected.  The primary here is often a game changer – South Carolina tends to go against the grain and picks the candidate who is not the likely suspect."  Phil Noble, president of the South Carolina New Democrats and founder and CEO of Phil Noble & Associates and Politics Online, describes his fellow Palmetto Staters thusly, "I think...we're a little crazy and cantankerous, and we're always sort of different in throwing a monkey wrench in the machinery, but fundamentally I think we're a pretty good reflection of America."

2018 Sets the Stage

In the pre-campaign period, the 2018 mid-term elections provided an opportunity for visiting presidential prospects to help out candidates and committees.  In the governor's race, Gov. Henry McMaster (R), who ascended to the office when Gov. Nikki Haley (R) took up the position of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, fended off a challenge from state Rep. James Smith (D) by 54.0% to 45.9% (+).  (McMaster, then lieutenant governor, was one of the few statewide officials to support Donald Trump in the 2016 Republican primary campaign).  Republicans also prevailed in the races for Secretary of State, Treasurer, Attorney General, Comptroller General, State Superintendent of Education and Commissioner of Agriculture.  There were, however, a couple of bright spots for Democrats.  In a stunning upset in the 1st CD, a coastal district running from Hilton Head Island to Charleston County, Joe Cunningham (D) defeated Katie Arrington (R) by 50.6% to 49.2%.  Arrington had defeated incumbent U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford (R) in the June 12 primary.  Additionally in a special election to complete the unfinished term in Senate District 20, Dick Harpootlian (D) defeated Benjam Dunn (R), flipping the seat. 

Although South Carolina did not get as much traffic as Iowa or New Hampshire, over a dozen prospects visited in 2018, including attorney Michael Avenatti, former Vice President Joe Biden, former NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Cory Booker, Gov. Steve Bullock, then U.S. Rep. John Delaney (declared), Mayor Eric Garcetti, Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Jeff Merkley, former Gov. Deval Patrick, Sen. Bernie Sanders, U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell, and Marianne Williamson.  Oct. 2018 was particularly busy.  Sen. Elizabeth Warren did not visit, but she did dispatch one of her staff to serve a three-month stint as communications director for the South Carolina Democratic Party.

Dynamics of the Race

South Carolina does not get as much attention as Iowa and New Hampshire do, but major Democratic campaigns laid the groundwork for a competitive campaign heading to the Feb. 29, 2020 primary.  The number of Democratic candidates started out in the double digits.  At one point or another over the course of the cycle, at least 18 of the candidates had some kind of organization on the ground, but some of these efforts were thin and disappeared early on.  By the Dec. 4 deadline, a total of 14 candidates had filed to appear on the primary ballot (+).  Twelve candidates appeared on the ballot, but by the time of the primary on Feb. 29 five had withdrawn and only six were actively competing.

For Democrats, the African-American vote is very significant.  African Americans were well-represented on the campaign staffs.  The candidates and their campaigns courted influencers such as black mayors and other officials, emphasized issues such as civil rights and criminal justice reform (1, 2, 3),and advertised in and paid attention to black media.  

Opinion polls consistently showed former Vice President Joe Biden as the frontrunner; Biden had longstanding ties to South Carolina, as he and his family often vacationed at Kiawah Island near Charleston.  Despite the drubbing he sustained in the 2016 South Carolina primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders made considerable efforts to connect with minority voters, and he secured some early endorsements.  Sen. Kamala Harris had been seen as a strong contender but ended her campaign on Dec. 3.  Tom Steyer emerged as a force later in the campaign.  He spent big, put a lot of time into the state, and gained quite a few endorsements; his wife even moved there for a bit.  Advertising Analytics reported that through Feb. 25 the Steyer campaign had spent more than twice as much on advertising (broadcast, cable, digital, radio and satellite) as the other campaigns combined ($23.6 million to $2.8m for Buttigieg, $2.3m for Bloomberg, $1.8m for Warren, $1.8m for Klobuchar, $1.1m for Biden and bit under $800,000 for Sanders).

Major multi-candidate events included:

 June 15, 2019 (Charleston) - Black Economic Alliance Presidential Candidates Forum.
 June 22, 2019 (Columbia) - We Decide: Planned Parenthood Action Fund 2020 Election Membership Forum.
June 22, 2019 (Columbia) - South Carolina Democratic Party Convention.
 June 21, 2019 (Columbia) - Jim Clyburn's World Famous Fish Fry.
 Sept. 16, 2019 (Galivants Ferry) - 2019 Galivants Ferry Stump.
 Oct. 5, 2019 (Charleston) - Charleston County Democratic Party Blue Jamboree.
 Oct. 26-27, 2019 (Columbia) - Collegiate Bipartisan Presidential Forum at Benedict College (replaced 2019 Second Step Presidential Justice Forum).
 Nov. 8, 2019 (Orangeburg) - 2019 Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice.
 Jan. 20, 2020 (Columbia) - King Day at the Dome
 Feb. 24, 2020 (Charleston, SC) - South Carolina Democratic Party First in the South Dinner. 
 Feb. 26, 2020 (N. Charleston, SC) - Rev. Al Sharpton and NAN Ministers' Breakfast.

Seven candidates participated in the CBS News debate in Charleston on Feb. 25, including Biden, ahead in the polls but coming off lackluster showings in the first three states, Sanders with three strong showings, and Steyer, making a big play with all his resources.  Warren, Buttigieg and Klobuchar were not expected to do well.  The seventh candidate, Bloomberg, was not even on the ballot in South Carolina, although it is worth noting that he did have a significant endorsement, that of Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin.  On Feb. 26, three days before the primary, there was a major development in the race as U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn endorsed Biden.  

There was no Republican primary in 2020; this is often the case here when there is an incumbent.  It happened in 1984 when President Ronald Reagan sought re-election and in 2004 when President George W. Bush sought re-election.  In 2012, when President Obama was the only candidate on the ballot, Democrats did not hold a primary; instead they held precinct reorganization and presidential preference meetings.

South Carolina does not have registration by party; this was an open primary and any of the state's 3,300,161 registered voters could have participated.  There was some concern among Democrats that Republicans, with no primary of their own (+), might try to make some mischief, but that did not happen.  540,062 South Carolinians or 16.36% voted, setting Biden on the path to the nomination [results and reactions].

Historical Perspective

Unlike in many states, in past South Carolina's presidential primaries had been party-run affairs; this posed a substantial financial and logistical challenge for the state parties which had to raise the funds privately.  The tradition of Saturday voting arose to reduce costs and increase turnout. 

Since 2008 the presidential primaries have been overseen by the State Election Commission (SEC) and county election officials, although the setting of the primary dates and other details is left to the party committees.  The parties still underwrite some of the cost of conducting the primaries.  Section 7-11-20(B)(2) of the South Carolina Code (>) states, "A filing fee not to exceed twenty thousand dollars, as determined by the State Election Commission, for each candidate certified by a political party must be transmitted by the respective political party to the State Election Commission and must be used for conducting the presidential preference primaries.") 

For 2016, Republicans and Democrats both conducted primaries; the SEC estimated cost of the presidential primaries at $2.5 million.  The SEC reimburses counties for most of the major expenses such as hiring poll managers, producing ballots, and printing election notices; other costs such as hiring temporary employees or renting trucks to deliver polling machines are the counties' responsibility. 

In 2004 Sen. John Edwards, who was born in Seneca, SC, benefited from his Southern roots in a strong win over Sen. John Kerry.

2008 saw record turnout.  Many blacks supported the historic candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama, and Sen. Hillary Clinton lagged far behind. 

In 2016 former Sec. of State Hillary Clinton scored a lopsided win over Sen. Bernie Sanders, carrying every county.  There was little activity in the way of candidate visits, just a trickle, but the campaigns of Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders built active organizations.  (Former Gov. Martin O'Malley had a tiny organization before he dropped out).  On Dec. 8, 2015 the SCDP executive council certified four candidates to appear on the ballot (+).  Clinton was seen as having an advantage due to her support in the African-American community, and that proved to be the case when the votes were tallied. 

Top Finishers and Turnout in Recent South Carolina Democratic Primaries
Feb. 27, 2016
Clinton 272,379 (73.44%),  Sanders 96,498 (26.02%),  Wilson 1,314 (0.35%),  O'Malley 713 (0.19%)

Jan. 26, 2008
Obama 294,898 (55.4%),  Clinton 140,990 (26.5%),  Edwards 93,801 (17.6%),  Others 2,462 (0.5%).

Feb. 3, 2004
Edwards 125,944 (45.3%),  Kerry 82,668 (29.8%),  Sharpton 26,755 (9.6%), Clark 19,999 (7.2%),  Dean 13,029 (4.7%),  Others 9,342 (3.4%).


The "firewall" reputation traces to the first South Carolina Republican presidential primary campaign in 1979-80, when legendary operative Lee Atwater, with help from some dirty tricks, was able to orchestrate Ronald Reagan's 55% to 30% win over John Connally, with Iowa caucus winner George H.W. Bush running a distant third at 15%. 

In 1988, after mixed results in the earliest contests, Atwater steered now Vice President George H.W. Bush to a 49% showing over Bob Dole and Steve Forbes in South Carolina.
In 1992, after Pat Buchanan gained a surprisingly strong showing in the New Hampshire primary, President George H. W. Bush rebounded with resounding win in South Carolina. 

In 1996, after mixed results in the earliest contests Bob Dole defeated Pat Buchanan by 45% to 29%.

In 2000 Sen. John McCain came into South Carolina with momentum from his win in the New Hampshire primary only to encounter a scurrilous whispering campaign and fall to Gov. George W. Bush by 53.4% to 41.9%. 

Sen. John McCain's 2008 win over former Gov. Mike Huckabee in South Carolina, while not overwhelming, was an important step on his road to the nomination. McCain and Huckabee roughly split the counties, Huckabee winning 24 to McCain's 22. 

Thus, in election after election insurgent-type candidates fell short in South Carolina Republican presidential primaries.  Until 2012.

In 2012, amid record turnout, Newt Gingrich achieved a broad win, carrying all but three counties; Romney finished first in Richland County (Columbia) and Charleston and Beaufort Counties on the coast.  While a couple of debates prior to the primary (1, 2) were important, cultural differences were also a significant factor; Romney, a Mormon from Massachussetts, simply could not connect with some sectors of the electorate.  [see also: economic impact of the GOP primary]

In 2016 Republican candidates appealed to a number of audiences including social conservatives in Upstate and Tea Party activists concerned about big government.  South Carolina lived up to its reputation for dirty tricks in politics, and the 2016 GOP primary saw its share of charges and countercharges (+).  A total of 16 Republican candidates filed to appear on the primary ballot by the Sept. 30 deadlline (+) despite the high $40,000 filing fee.  On Nov. 30, SCGOP chairman Matt Moore certified 14 candidates to appear on the ballot (+).  By the time the primary arrived on Feb. 20, 2016 the field had been pared to six candidates.  Donald Trump carried 44 of 46 counties, finishing with a margin of 74,314 votes (10.03 percentage points) over the next nearest candidate Sen. Marco Rubio.  Trump's share of the vote was a relatively low 32.5%. 

Top Finishers and Turnout in Recent South Carolina Republican Primaries
Feb. 20, 2016
Trump 240,882 (32.5%),  Rubio 166,565 (22.5%),  Cruz 165,417 (22.3%),  Bush 58,056 (7.8%),  Kasich 56,410 (7.6%),  Carson 53,551 (7.2%)

Jan. 21, 2012 Gingrich 244,113 (40.4%),  Romney 168,152 (27.9%),  Santorum 102,482 (17.0%),  Paul 78,362 (13.0%),  Others 10,747 (1.8%).  603,856

Jan. 19, 2008 McCain 147,686 (33.2%),  Huckabee 132,943 (29.8%),  F.Thompson 69,651 (15.6%),  Romney 68,142 (15.3%),  Others 27,077 (6.1%).

Feb. 19, 2000
Bush 305,998 (53.4%),  McCain 239,964 (41.9%),  Keyes 25,996 (4.5%),  Others 1,143 (0.2%). 573,101

March 2, 1996
Dole 124,904 (45.1%),  Buchanan 80,824 (29.2%),  Forbes 35,039 (12.7%),  Alexander 28,647 (10.4%),  Others 7,327 (2.7%).

Results and Reactions




Candidate Visits - Democracy in Action is not tracking candidate visits this cycle. The Post and Courier has a candidate tracker and WYFF NBC 4 has a limited candidate tracker.


Key Dates
June 21-22 - South Carolina Democratic Party Weekend: Jim Clyburn's World Famous Fish Fry, Blue Palmetto Dinner, 2019 Convention.

Dec. 4 - Filing period for the South Carolina Democratic Primary closes. 14 candidates apply to appear on the ballot.

Feb. 29 (Sat.) - South Carolina Democratic Primary.

Delegate Selection Plan [PDF]