Who Will Win South Carolina Saturday? Just Look at the Voters

by Stuart Rothenberg February 19, 2016 · 12:26 PM EST

What will South Carolina Republican presidential primary voters do when they go to the polls on Saturday? The best way to approach that question is to compare the Palmetto State’s GOP primary voters to those who turned out this month for the first two Republican contests.

By most measures, South Carolina Republican voters are likely to look much more like those who participated in Iowa than in New Hampshire.

In this year’s Iowa caucuses (see here and here), evangelicals constituted 64 percent of the electorate, compared to only 25 percent of those who went to the polls for the New Hampshire GOP primary (see here). In South Carolina four years ago (see here), 65 percent of GOP primary voters described themselves as born again or evangelical Christians, making them about the same percentage of the electorate as they were in Iowa. (In 2008, 60 percent were evangelicals.)

South Carolina evangelicals went heavily for George W. Bush in his 2000 primary win over John McCain, and they supported runner-up Mike Huckabee in 2008. They also went for primary winner Newt Gingrich (44 percent) over Mitt Romney (22 percent) and Rick Santorum (21 percent) in 2012.

Clearly, evangelical voters are crucial in the Palmetto State, though winning them does not guarantee victory.

This year, while they are likely to divide at least four ways, Ted Cruz figures to get the biggest chunk of their vote. The big question is how much Donald Trump, Marco Rubio and Ben Carson also get. In Iowa, Cruz won 33 percent of evangelicals, while Trump and Rubio each won about one in five. Carson drew 12 percent.

South Carolina primary voters are likely to be much more conservative than New Hampshire GOP primary voters but not quite as conservative as Iowa caucus attendees.

Fully 40 percent of Iowa attendees described themselves as “very conservative,” slightly more than the 36 percent who said that in the 2012 South Carolina exit poll. Only 26 percent of participants in the New Hampshire Republican primary this year called themselves “very conservative.”

But a remarkable 32 percent of 2012 Palmetto State GOP primary voters called themselves “moderate to liberal” – a figure much larger than in Iowa (15 percent) and even larger than in New Hampshire (29 percent). Of course, the term “moderate” in South Carolina might have a different meaning than it does in Iowa and New Hampshire.

The ideological bent of Palmetto State primary voters would seem to benefit Cruz at one end of the ideological continuum and Trump, or possibly Bush or Kasich, at the other.

Though the South Carolina primary is open (the state has no partisan registration), there are likely to be fewer Independents than there were in New Hampshire. In 2012, Independents constituted only 25 percent of South Carolina GOP primary voters, far less than the 42 percent of Independents who made up the Granite State primary.

Again, the strongly Republican nature of the electorate should help Cruz, Rubio and possibly Bush, whose family name might actually be an asset in this state. Conversely, it could be a problem for Kasich.

In terms of age, South Carolina looks once again more like Iowa than New Hampshire. Republican primary voters in the Palmetto State in 2012 were about as old as those who attended the Iowa caucuses this year. For example, while 27 percent of both South Carolina primary voters and Iowa caucuses attendees were age 65 and older, only 19 percent of New Hampshire primary voters fell into that category.

While Trump easily won the oldest demographic in New Hampshire this month, Kasich and Bush did relatively well among those voters. But in Iowa, age didn’t seem to be a particularly important variable. Both Cruz and Rubio ran about as well across all age categories at the caucuses.

Looking more generally at the last three Republican South Carolina primaries, we see three different coalitions put together by the winning candidates.

George W. Bush carried the state 53 percent to 42 percent against John McCain in 2000. According to the 2000 exit poll, Bush did well among self-identified members of the religious right (winning 68 percent of them), conservatives (winning 65 percent), Republicans (winning 69 percent) and those born in the state (winning 58 percent).

But McCain’s showing was not insignificant. He won moderates and liberal voters, Independents, voters who thought abortion should be legal all or most of the time, and voters not members of the religious right. He also ran even with Bush among veterans.

Eight years later, McCain won the primary, but with only 33.2 percent of the vote. Still, he nosed out Mike Huckabee (29.9 percent), who carried evangelicals 43 percent to 27 percent over McCain. Huckabee also carried “very conservative” votes, drawing 41 percent to Fred Thompson’s 22 percent, McCain’s 19 percent and Mitt Romney’s 16 percent.

Once again, McCain ran best among older voters, pro-choice Republicans, self-identified moderates, upper income voters and non-evangelicals. He won the primary because three other more conservative candidates split the non-McCain vote.

Finally, in 2012, Newt Gingrich became the “anyone but Romney” candidate, finishing first in the Palmetto State primary with 40.4 percent to 27.8 percent for Romney and 17 percent for Rick Santorum. Gingrich drew the lion’s share of evangelicals and very conservative voters, and he even beat Romney along “somewhat conservative” primary voters.

Romney carried non-religious voters and those who described themselves as “moderate to liberal,” but he carried a substantial chunk of most categories, though was not as strong in them as Gingrich.

So what do all these data tell us? They suggest an outcome in the GOP that more closely resembles Iowa than New Hampshire. That means a closer race, with Trump, Cruz and possibly Rubio more likely to be bunched, rather than the Granite State with its clear thumping by Trump.

But South Carolina’s considerable “moderate” vote also gives at least some hope to Bush and Kasich.

Polls suggest that Rubio has a chance to re-establish himself as the third hopeful in the party’s top tier, a spot he was consolidating immediately after Iowa but before his debate debacle in New Hampshire. Bush, on the other hand, may find South Carolina the end of the line. If the former Florida governor finishes fourth or worse on Saturday, it will be difficult for him to see a path to his party’s nomination.

Kasich remains something of an enigma. He has limited appeal within the party, but if he doesn’t get buried on Saturday, (or even if he does), he has some incentive to stay in the race at least until Michigan, early next month.

Trump and Cruz continue to have reasonably solid bases of support in the party, both South Carolina and nationally. But the fight for the nomination eventually still is likely to turn into a three-way contest, and many GOP strategists are hoping – and believe – that South Carolina’s results will make that development more likely.