What South Carolina Races Can Teach Us About This Election Year

BY dchinni  June 22, 2010 at 10:51 AM EDT

Some years the flow in politics is a torrent, a powerful river rushing in one direction where the coming impacts are obvious and clear. In summer, you can look ahead to November and see a pretty clear image of the future.

In case you were wondering, 2010 is not one of those years.

Is the mood in 2010 anti-incumbent, anti-Democrat, anti-establishment? Is it all those things or a mix of them? There is evidence for all those possibilities. One thing is clear looking at the landscape in June: There is something different about 2010. Just look at South Carolina.

On Tuesday, polls indicate Nikki Haley will secure the Republican nomination for governor. If she does, her victory will come despite the kind of smear campaigns – about an alleged affair and her faith – that are often a hallmark of politics in that state.

Meanwhile, also in South Carolina, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, Alvin Greene, won his primary despite the fact that he is unemployed, never held elected office before and spent about $10,000 on his campaign. His interviews have been of head-shaking oddities that shed no light on how he won.

At Patchwork Nation we take great pride in our ability to use demographic data and voter histories to make sense of political results, but as we have noted in recent weeks 2010 is shaping up to be an especially volatile and difficult year to understand. And South Carolina offers more evidence.

Haley Bucks a Trend

Nikki Haley has faced two attacks on her way to the Tuesday runoff election. First there were the unsubstantiated allegations that Haley had committed adultery – one of them coming from a man who claimed he had been involved with her. In addition, in the last few weeks, opponents have suggested that Haley, who is the daughter of Indian immigrants, is not really a Christian. She says she converted to become a Methodist in her 20s.

So far, there has been little sign that the campaigns have hurt Haley’s chances. Her primary win did not garner 50 percent of the vote – hence, the runoff – but it was very broad-based across all the county types in South Carolina. She lost only four of 46 counties and will likely to do well Tuesday.

If you are looking for something to watch for, however, pay close attention to the state’s six Evangelical Epicenter counties – Spartanburg, Oconee, Lancaster, Greenville, Chester and Anderson. Those counties tend to be socially conservative and have higher-than-average numbers of evangelical adherents. They are precisely the kinds of counties where questions about Haley’s faith could resonate.

Much of the commentary about the 2010 midterms thus far has focused on economic issues – and with good reason. We’ve noted that the nation’s Boom Town counties, which have suffered hard in the housing bust, seem especially focused on economic troubles and are something of a base of support for the tea party movement.

But culturally conservative voters are still out there. And the vote on Haley represents a kind of test case as to whether those voters are engaged on their signature issues – if indeed the voters in South Carolina believe the stories about Haley.

Alvin Greene and the Potential Democratic ‘Enthusiasm Gap’

Looking at the vote in the Palmetto State’s Democratic primary, there may be a few lessons to draw for that party – and they are not positive ones.

Barack Obama’s presidential win in 2008 was broad-based in the sense that he did better that John Kerry did in 2004 with almost every type of county in Patchwork Nation. Mr. Obama’s improvement in the black-heavy Minority Central counties, which were heavily engaged in the election, arguably won him neighboring North Carolina.

The results from South Carolina’s primary suggest that in that state at least, the Democratic voters are not focused on 2010, at least not yet. In the end, Alvin Green won the Democratic senate primary because voters did not know the candidates and because of low turnout.

The number of people who vote in the state’s Democratic senate primary, about 170,000, was less than half of those who voted in Haley’s race: 412,000. And in the 29 Minority Central counties in South Carolina, only a small fraction of the votes were cast in the Democratic senate race. Most votes were instead cast in the Republican races.

For example, consider Charleston, a Minority Central county. There were 11,000 Democratic votes cast in Greene’s race compared to more than 30,000 votes cast in Haley’s race.

But in 2008, Obama won that same county with 60 percent of the vote.

It’s only one state, of course, and it is just a primary, but the numbers suggest that Democratic Party is facing a serious enthusiasm gap in these places in 2010.

The question, of course, is how representative is South Carolina of the nation at large in a year where the electorate is hard to read. And that is a question everyone will be trying to answer in the next few months.