The idea that South Carolina could seal the deal for Mitt Romney seemed fanciful mere months ago. Its Republican electorate—conservative, Southern, evangelical—doesn't seem like fertile political ground for a moderate northeastern Mormon. Yet Romney is well positioned to win the state's Jan. 21 primary and all but lock up the Republican presidential nomination.
Four years ago, Romney took 15 percent of the primary vote and came in fourth. This time around, he is facing an onslaught of attacks aimed at his Bain Capital credentials from challengers desperate to make their last stand in the state.
But South Carolina isn't the same state it was in 2008—and Romney is not the same candidate. He has distinct political advantages this time: a splintered conservative electorate that hasn't been able to coalesce around a single alternative; an economy in much-worse shape; and a two-for-two record heading into a state where momentum makes all the difference.
Indeed, when examining the changing landscape of South Carolina politics—and the current dynamics of the GOP race—the stars are aligned for Romney to win South Carolina. Here are the three main reasons why:
It's the Economy, Stupid
The attacks on Romney's record at Bain Capital are coming fast and furious in South Carolina, but it's questionable whether the populist line of attack will resonate in a state with a rapidly diversifying economy. Auto companies have set up manufacturing plants upstate, retirees and Northern snowbirds have settled along the coast, and fiscal conservatives have been flocking to the fast-growing Charlotte exurbs. Romney's jobs-oriented message (which has been well-tailored to the right-to-work state) should resonate with large swaths of the state's GOP electorate.
In January 2008, when Sen. John McCain narrowly bested Mike Huckabee in South Carolina's hotly-contested primary, the state's unemployment rate was a comfortable 5.5 percent. Four years later, that number hovers just under 10 percent, among the highest in the country. Conservatives in the state acknowledge that such a swift economic downturn has prompted even the staunchest of social conservatives to begin reexamining their electoral priorities.
"Evangelical voters are like everyone else: They're concerned about the economy," said Dr. Tony Beam, an ordained Southern Baptist minister and influential South Carolina radio host who recently endorsed Santorum.
Beam said Romney is poised to win South Carolina because a growing number of conservatives there are convinced that electability and the economy—not social issues—are driving the agenda. "There's a sense of desperation about the economy that wasn't there in 2008," Beam said. "If there are evangelicals being siphoned off, I suspect that's the issue."
Romney has already demonstrated his advantage among fiscal-minded voters in the first two nominating states—both of which boast significantly lower unemployment rates than hard-hit South Carolina. In Iowa, Romney won easily among the 42 percent of caucus-goers who listed the economy as their key issue. That trend grew clearer in New Hampshire, where 61 percent of voters said the economy was the issue most important to them. Romney won nearly half those voters, getting more support from that group than Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich combined. Only 40 percent of South Carolina voters listed the economy as their top priority in 2008. Expect that number to be higher this time around—and expect Romney to benefit.
Winning Streak Trumps Populist Streak
South Carolina is often referred to as the "decider" in Republican presidential primaries because the state has backed every eventual nominee since 1980. South Carolinians are acutely aware of their impressive streak—and are in no hurry to see it snapped.
"South Carolina prides itself on picking the nominee," said Jim Dyke, a Charleston-based GOP strategist who is unaligned with any campaign. Dyke said because South Carolinians stay tuned into the first two nominating contests, electoral momentum often plays a decisive role in voters’ minds. "Winning is better than losing," Dyke said.
While South Carolina is described as a tea party-friendly state with a populist streak, the reality is that Palmetto State politics are inherently establishment-driven. Columbia and Charleston are teeming with consultants and strategists who are paid handsomely to drive a narrative and work the system. It's difficult to imagine candidates like Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush—both non-Southern establishment favorites—winning the state without an atmosphere friendly to front-runners and skeptical of unknown quantities.
Simply put: No state carries a perfect track record in picking the eventual Republican nominee unless: a) it has deep and abiding ties to the establishment wing of the party; and b) its voters prioritize electability over ideological agreement.
A Leap of Faith
In a state where bare-knuckle politics rule, there’s a good chance that Romney's religion (and criticism thereof) will become a topic of conversation over the next 10 days. It seems highly unlikely, however, that such a dynamic would deter any significant portion of the electorate from backing a candidate they see as the most electable.
Even among evangelical Christians—the group most often portrayed as uncomfortable with Romney's religion—those who vote against the former Massachusetts governor aren't likely to do so because of his faith, according to Beam. "Mormonism is a very moral religious system," he said. "I don't think evangelicals here are focusing on his Mormonism; they're focusing on his record of position changes he's made over the years."
Southerners remain sensitive to the perception of xenophobia, and those well-versed in Palmetto State politics are quick to note South Carolina has been at the tip of the spear in transforming the identity politics of the Republican Party. In 2010, the state witnessed the election of Gov. Nikki Haley, a youthful Indian-American female; and Rep. Tim Scott, the first black Republican elected from the Deep South since reconstruction. With that recent history in mind, Republicans in the state insist Romney’s religion won’t affect his electoral prospects.
"If you look at Nikki Haley and Tim Scott," Dyke said, "it's clear South Carolina picks the best candidate."