South Carolina’s presidential primaries will be held on Saturdays this month, but for the candidates trying to sway voters their way, the next few Sunday mornings will loom just as large.
The state’s Democratic and Republican voters both attend church regularly — in larger numbers, percentage-wise, than voters in most other states. Almost 80 percent of all voters identify as Christians.
And what they hear in the pews often affects what they do at the polls.
On the GOP side, evangelical voters make up a super-majority of the party’s base, and they are attuned to where candidates stand on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. However, experts note they don’t always settle on a single candidate who they feel best advances their cause.
The state’s black voters make up most of the Democratic Party’s base, and for them, churches have served as a galvanizing force to advance civil rights and other shared goals.
For Democratic hopefuls, it’s a prime chance to introduce themselves to members of their party’s largest voting bloc in a setting where they feel most at home. As President Barack Obama said during his eulogy of state Sen. and Rev. Clementa Pinckney last year: “The church is and always has been the center of African-American life — a place to call our own in a too often hostile world.”
So as the presidential hopefuls arrive in the Palmetto State, expect Republicans to talk about their walk in faith, and expect Democratic candidates and their surrogates to spread their own gospel inside as many black churches as they can.
On Feb. 20 and 27, respectively, Republican and Democratic candidates will learn if voters answered their prayers.
It’s not a fluke that one of the largest gatherings of Republican presidential hopefuls has a theme of “faith and family” and will take place Friday at Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist Christian school in Greenville.
All the GOP hopefuls except Donald Trump are expected to attend.
The event is co-hosted by the Palmetto Family Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group that operates at the intersection of religion and government.
Its director is Oran Smith, who got a bachelor’s degree in political science from Clemson University and who counts himself among the evangelical voters who make up the Republican base here.
Smith said he feels South Carolina’s evangelicals are more mainstream than Iowa’s — and that means they are more apt to consider economic and security issues along with social issues.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s father, an evangelical pastor, has stumped for his son, and GOP hopeful Ben Carson has emphasized the crucial role of faith in his journey from a difficult Detroit childhood to his status as a world-renowned neurosurgeon.
But Trump has held the lead in the most recent GOP polls here, and the state’s evangelical base is expected to divvy up its support among several candidates, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio or former Florida Gov. George Bush.
“My board of directors has Cruz supporters, Rubio supporters, Bush supporters,” Smith said. “Every candidate that’s left is represented on my board. ... I don’t think that would be true of my counterpart in Iowa. I think they were mostly Cruz and Carson supporters.”
Smith said both Cruz and Rubio seem to have stepped up efforts among South Carolina’s evangelical leaders. “They’ve been less reluctant than candidates in the past to go to some of the religious leaders and ask for their support,” he said.
Randy Page, spokesman for Bob Jones University, said he is supporting Rubio because Rubio seems most able to sell conservative ideas to those who don’t always land on the conservative side of the fence.
“The ability to sell conservatism to a broad base definitely contributes to electability,” he said.
Dave Woodard, a Clemson University political science professor, said Republican evangelical voters here have split their votes before, as far back as 1988, when Pat Robertson, a former Southern Baptist minister, was thought to have an edge here over Kansas Sen. Bob Dole and Vice President George H.W. Bush.
“The Christian Coalition was very powerful here — it was probably the best organized Christian Coalition in the country,” Woodard said. “But they weren’t able to deliver the goods, and the talent went away after that... I just don’t think they are what they once were.”
But they’re still particularly strong in the Upstate, where former Arkansas Gov. and Baptist minister Mike Huckabee won many counties in 2008 — just not by large enough margins to offset Arizona Sen. John McCain’s popularity along the coast.
Smith said among some Republican evangelicals, there’s an undercurrent of a need to fix what has been marred — from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision legalizing gay marriage to social changes within the state.
“We’ve been sort of a Christian Zion here in South Carolina for so long,” he said. “That’s changing as more and more businesses are selling alcohol on a Sunday now, and more entertainment venues that have various types of entertainment — the kind of thing you’re mom warned you about. Those are not only in New York or Atlanta anymore.”
The intersection between religion and politics is a bit different on the Democratic side.
Many black churches feel a duty during election season to educate and mobilize their parishioners, but not necessarily toward any one particular issue or any particular candidate.
“Retail politics in Iowa always seems to be hitting most every county and most of the diners in that county,” said Winthrop University political science professor Scott Huffmon. “Retail politics in South Carolina on the Democratic side always has to include visits to significant black congregations.”
The Rev. Joseph Darby, presiding elder of the Beaufort District of the AME Church, said when he was pastor at Morris Brown AME in Charleston, he had an open-door policy toward all candidates, Republican and Democratic. Many candidates — from Vice President Joe Biden to Republican Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster to Democratic Rep. James Clyburn to GOP Rep. Mark Sanford — took him up on the offer.
Darby said he doesn’t like “drive-by” visits and would prefer the candidate remain for the service. And the candidates or their surrogates are allowed to bring greetings, “as long as those greetings don’t turn into a sermon.”
“I tell them, ‘You’re there to worship, not just to say, ‘Hello, please vote for me,’’” he said.
Darby said he expects either former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders or their surrogates will visit at least some of the 32 churches in his district, though such visits often are scheduled just a short time before the Sunday service.
Huffmon said candidates seek to speak to black congregations because there’s a sense of linked fate there, that what is good for each of them is good for all, and vice versa.
“Blacks are actually more frequent than whites when it comes to church-going,” Huffmon said, adding that he pulled that fact from his polling data. “And white church-going is pretty darned high.”
Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771 or at twitter.com/RobertFBehre.