Sen. Tim Scott laughs easily and often, as when, during lunch in this city’s humming downtown, he explains that South Carolina’s Lowcountry is benefiting from what are called “halfbacks.” These are migrants who moved from Northern states to Florida in search of warmth but, finding high prices and congestion, then moved halfway back, settling in South Carolina. Doing so, they have located in the state where, Scott believes and history suggests, the 2016 Republican presidential nomination will begin to come to closure.
Since picking Ronald Reagan over John Connally and George H.W. Bush in 1980, South Carolina’s Republican primary electorate has sided with the eventual nominee every four years, with the exception of 2012. This year, South Carolina votes just 10 days before the selection of convention delegates accelerates with the March 1 “SEC primary,” so-named because five of the 12 primaries that day are in Southern states represented in that football conference.
Donald Trump is leading polls here. But it remains to be seen whether Republicans will vote for Trump while so warmly embracing the senator who is his stylistic antithesis. Scott is “an unbridled optimist” (his description) who thinks Republican chances in 2016 depend on whether their nominee is an “aspirational leader” or someone “selling fear.” Scott’s un-Trumpian demeanor is both a cause and an effect of his popularity. Which is why 13 of the Republican presidential candidates have accepted his invitations to hold town meetings with him. All the candidates covet Scott’s endorsement, which will happen only if, as the Feb. 20 vote draws near, polls show a close race, perhaps a four-point difference between the leaders.
This could be a choice between two of Scott’s Senate colleagues, Florida’s Marco Rubio and Texas’ Ted Cruz. If, he says, South Carolinians choose well, America will be en route to a Republican presidency.
Scott, 50, became a congressman by defeating in a Republican primary the son of Strom Thurmond, the Dixiecrat presidential candidate in 1948 and then eight-term U.S. senator. In 2013, Scott became the second African-American Republican senator since Reconstruction, and today he and New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker are the Senate’s only African-Americans.
Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, whose specialty is conservative politics, says that among the four states that vote in February (the others are Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada), South Carolina’s electorate “best mirrors the nation’s.”
Writing for National Review Online, Olsen says the state’s primary electorate closely reflects the national balance among the GOP’s four factions – “moderates and liberals” (32 percent), “somewhat conservatives” (32 percent), “very conservative evangelicals” (28 percent) and “very conservative seculars” (6 percent). Here a dominant cohort is that which Olsen calls the national party’s “ballast” – the “somewhat conservatives.”
South Carolina’s primary 11 weeks from now will be as distant from the state’s 1980 primary that chose Reagan, as Reagan’s first presidential victory later that year was from Franklin Roosevelt’s last victory in 1944.
And why whichever Republican wins here will have done so in the first 2016 contest that approximates the electorates of the swing states that will determine the 45th president. This fact must be deeply satisfying to Nikki Haley, 43, South Carolina’s Indian-American governor, and to Scott, who was born 44 days after enactment of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that made all of this possible.