Ground Game

Five ways the South Carolina primary is different from Iowa, N.H.

Shealy’s Bar-B-Que in Leesville, South Carolina, welcomed presidential candidate Jeb Bush to a campaign event.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Shealy’s Bar-B-Que in Leesville, South Carolina, welcomed presidential candidate Jeb Bush to a campaign event.

For the last two years, presidential hopefuls have been visiting two states, Iowa and New Hampshire, that are relatively similar in demographics and politics.

The residents of both states are overwhelmingly white, and a large part of the population lives in rural areas. Iowa and New Hampshire also have highly developed campaign infrastructures: For more than 40 years, state activists, political parties, colleges, and journalists have learned the rhythm and their roles in the respective nominating contests.

Now comes South Carolina.


Republicans will hold their presidential primary Saturday in a state where they must navigate an entirely different political landscape. Democrats will follow with their contest on Feb. 27.

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There are no more intimate town hall meetings or appeals to slices of voters like Iowa evangelicals or New Hampshire independents. Candidates are no longer noshing on pork-on-a-stick at the state fair or pouring maple syrup on everything.

Instead, the candidates are eating barbecue, hosting massive rallies, and gunning for top television interviews to try to get into as many of South Carolina’s media markets as they can. The Palmetto State’s electorate is as diverse as the national party, and its politics have a reputation for dirty tricks.

One thing that has not changed since the race moved to South Carolina: the fundamental dynamic of the Republican contest. Polls of the state GOP primary show the race remains a battle between front-runner Donald Trump and everyone else.

But in so many other ways, South Carolina is a different place for presidential candidates.

1. It’s Newt Gingrich country.


Since 1988, when the South Carolina primary jumped to the front of the nominating calendar, the primary has had a perfect record in picking the Republican nominee. There’s only one exception: In 2012 former House speaker Newt Gingrich won the state’s primary — his only victory in that race.

Why this happened is important to understanding how South Carolina is different, according to Scott English, who served as chief of staff to former governor Mark Sanford. The Republican electorate in the state has long favored establishment candidates, picking both President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush. But that’s changing as the grass roots have become more emboldened in the wake of the Tea Party movement.

“This is a state that has traditionally required Republican presidential candidates to appeal to different audiences in different parts of the state,” English said. “You have the moderate folks on the coast and evangelicals upstate, but the Tea Party and the grass roots have really grown.”

The 2012 primary demonstrated this shift among Republicans. In any previous cycle, Mitt Romney might have skated to victory in the South Carolina primary. But that year, former Texas governor Rick Perry had dropped out of the contest and tossed his support to Gingrich, and it quickly shifted the momentum of the contest.

That contest might have also been the first indication that South Carolina could pick Donald Trump over a third Bush.

2. The state is racially diverse.


The populations of Iowa and New Hampshire are 92 percent and 94 percent white, according to the US Census. To compare, South Carolina is 68 percent white, with African-Americans making up more than a quarter of the population.

This matters most in the Democratic primary. In 2008, more than half of Democratic primary voters were African-American. In the last few weeks, the candidates have focused almost solely on appealing to this population.

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton has given a number of speeches directed at African-Americans in Flint, Mich.; Harlem; and Chicago. For his part, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont met with civil rights activist Al Sharpton the day after the New Hampshire primary, released an ad touting the support of Eric Garner’s sister, and spoke at Morehouse College earlier this week.

3. Television advertising matters more.

The South Carolina primary marks the official transition for campaigns from retail politics to heavy television advertising. Part of the reason is that South Carolina is a bigger state. It has over three times the population of New Hampshire.

What’s more, the state’s population is spread out geographically. In New Hampshire, voters who wanted to see a candidate on a particular day could get there. This is more difficult in South Carolina.

There’s another reason why television advertising matters more in South Carolina. Unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, these campaigns have spent significantly less time visiting the Palmetto State to meet voters over the last few years. Instead, South Carolina voters often “meet” the candidates through their televisions.

4. The military and national security are a much bigger deal.

South Carolina boasts several military bases and, therefore, a large population of active duty personnel and veterans. Iowa and New Hampshire don’t have as many military bases and schools.

“The military culture has long been part of the South Carolina political culture,” said Danielle Vinson, a Furman University political science professor.

It’s why candidates are more likely to bring up strengthening the military and reforming the Veterans Administration. For example, Bush and Perry went to South Carolina to announce their national security plans.

5. It is warmer.

The days preceding the Iowa caucuses were cold. It snowed twice during the week before the New Hampshire primary. But in the South Carolina primary, candidates are wearing sweaters — not winter coats.

What does this mean for campaigns? Getting around the state is logistically easier. Candidates can schedule more rallies and fly in additional surrogates to stump on their behalf.

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his daily e-mail update on the 2016 campaign at www.bostonglobe.com/groundgame.