John McCain and Barack Obama have lavished attention and money on North Carolina this fall.
But if you drive south on Interstate 77, you won't find any presidential stump speeches or rope lines. And the only commercials for president are spillovers from Asheville, Charlotte and Wilmington.
A poll by Winthrop University and S.C. ETV released Thursday night highlights massive political differences in the Carolinas this year. McCain is ahead in the Palmetto State by 20 percentage points, while Obama is essentially tied with him in North Carolina and Virginia.
Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop political science professor who conducted the poll, said he wasn't surprised by the Republican's 20-point S.C. lead.
“But what surprised me was how North Carolina and Virginia weren't dissimilar. But South Carolina was very dissimilar from her Southern sisters,” Huffmon said.
Experts say long-standing differences between North Carolina and South Carolina are showing in this year's race.
“Structurally we're just very different,” said Neil Thigpen, a retired politician science professor at Francis Marion College in Florence. “North Carolina has always been one of the most progressive states in the South despite Jesse Helms in the Senate.”
Thigpen said North Carolina has long had one of the strongest Democratic parties in the South, and a history of electing Democrats to state office – even when it gave Republicans its electoral votes. Its emphasis on higher education has made it attractive in the past 20 years for new workers coming to Charlotte or the Research Triangle.
While newcomers to Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham are less conservative, he said, many of South Carolina's new residents are retirees who tend to support Republicans.
“A lot of people are coming to North Carolina for commercial reasons,” he said. “But not many people move from New York to South Carolina unless they are going to retire.”
Political scientists have long predicted that Virginia and North Carolina would become competitive for Democrats and turn “purple.”
But there has been no such forecasting for South Carolina.
“I think South Carolina is going to stay red (in upcoming elections),” said Samuel Harms, chairman of the Greenville County Republican Party. “People are very familiar with John McCain and excited about Sarah Palin. He did a lot of campaigning in 2000 and 2008. People know about his service to his country. I would say the significant portion of that lead is due to Sarah Palin.”
South Carolina's population of African Americans is higher than North Carolina's, by 29 percent with 22 percent. That gives Democrats a political base in South Carolina, but there are far fewer white voters who will support the party's nominees.
The Winthrop poll surveyed 744 likely N.C. voters. Obama got 44.6 percent and McCain had 44.2 percent. President Bush carried North Carolina by 8 percentage points in 2004.
It polled 617 likely S.C. voters. McCain led with 55.1 percent to Obama's 34.9 percent.
Huffmon said the poll didn't factor in unusually high African American turnout, which would favor Obama. The polls were also conducted over three weeks – from Sept. 28 to Oct. 19 – which is different from many polls.
Some in South Carolina believe that the 20-point lead is too large and that McCain will win by only 10 percentage points – down from Bush's 17-point win four years ago.
But they say South Carolina will continue to be challenging for Democrats for the next several presidential elections, while North Carolina may become a regular target state.
Huffmon said the two Carolinas are diverging politically because the state's populations are changing due to immigration. But he said the money and attention the Democratic presidential nominee has lavished on North Carolina has made it competitive.
“N.C. and Virginia are getting hammered by the campaigns,” Huffmon said. “Let's assume all three states are conservative. In the absence of new info, you fall back on your base ideology.”
Dick Harpootlian, former chair of the S.C. Democratic Party, said he thinks McCain will win the state by less than 10 percentage points. He said if Obama had campaigned in S.C. as he has in Virginia and N.C., “we'd be down just a couple of points.”
Because S.C. hasn't been seen as a competitive state, new voter registration there has lagged N.C. and other battlegrounds, according to a recent study.
S.C. voter rolls increased by 2 percent from 2004 to 2008, but the state's population grew faster, according to the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota.
N.C. voter registration increased by 9 percent, while the state's population increased 7 percent in the past four years.
Harpootlian said he believes Democrats can win presidential elections in South Carolina in the future, if they devote resources to the state.
“But South Carolina will be one of the last places to go blue,” he said.
A number of other polls give Obama a small lead in N.C. of between 1 and 4 percentage points, while one poll has the race tied. S.C. polls have McCain ahead by 11, 14 and 13 percentage points, according to the nonpartisan Web site RealClearPolitics.com.