Debates, non-stop media and alternative platforms are driving Republican voter turnout

On Feb. 20, South Carolinians will cast ballots in the first-in-the-South primary for the Republican Party nomination. Record turnout in other states like Iowa and New Hampshire is expected in the much larger Palmetto State, as well.

COLUMBIA – More Americans are paying close attention to the 2016 presidential race than during the past two presidential campaigns, new research shows, triggering a record voter turnout that’s also expected in South Carolina.

The Pew Research Center found that 74 percent of Americans have given a lot or some thought to the candidates. At least 69 percent say they watched at least some of the televised debates.

With lively candidates geared toward a non-stop media cycle, people can’t avoid campaign news, said Charles Bierbauer, dean of the University of South Carolina’s College of Information and Communications.

“It’s like second-hand smoke: you can’t escape it,” Bierbauer said. “Random exposure doesn’t get the consumer necessarily to a knowledgeable place, it stimulates the voter more to go out and see what these folks are saying.”

The data shows the availability of social media was bringing more young adults into the process as well. Social media was the primary source for 18- to 29-year-olds, while cable news dominated all other age groups.

The effect is reaching South Carolina, where several Boiling Springs High School students went directly to one of the campaign sources, U.S. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, at his rally Wednesday in Spartanburg.

“We’re so inundated with all this at the palm of our hands, so it’s so easy for us to follow,” senior Paige Hicks said of the media overload which keeps her in tune. “Just the thought of me being able to vote for president is making me want to lean in and listen more to the debates.”

While decorating Facebook pages, updating Twitter avatars or following campaigns on Snapchat are modern ways to learn about a candidate, Paul Jansen and some other Republican voters who often visit the Spartanburg County GOP office prefer a more old-fashioned way.

“A lot of the fun of campaigns is putting a yard sign in your yard or a bumper sticker on your car,” Jansen said. “But I see, maybe, that campaign resources are being skewed toward new and old media rather than yard signs.”

Jansen knows the old ways of campaigning aren’t in his favor. A recent paper published in the journal Electoral Studies found that yard signs impact voter choice, but not turnout, providing candidates only a slight bump.

Whatever medium works best, South Carolina’s larger, diverse electorate is expected to winnow the GOP field further, S.C. GOP Chairman Matt Moore said.

“The electorate here will be about twice as big as Iowa and New Hampshire combined,” Moore said. “A third of the electorate is very conservative, a third is somewhat conservative and a third is moderate.”

One of the heaviest chores in this cycle is that Republican primary voters are being tasked with restoring South Carolina’s credibility in picking the eventual nominee. GOP voters here chose correctly in all the party races since 1980 until the turnabout in 2012 when former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich was the choice. That’s setting up a huge playing field question for 2016, even as New York billionaire Donald Trump seems the top choice, according to polling.

“South Carolinians kind of blew it last time voting for Gingrich,” said Clemson University professor David Woodard. “They’re taking their ‘first-in-the-South primary’ and ‘we pick presidents’ to heart, there is a seriousness here that’s on display this time.”

The state is Trump’s to lose, Woodard added, citing strong polling data and his message in connecting with the electorate.

In the 2012 Republican primary, 605,623 ballots were cast, of which Gingrich received 40 percent. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney trailing him with 28 percent. That was a 36 percent increase from 2008 when Republican primary voters chose Arizona U.S. Sen. John McCain.

That same year 532,151 Democrats turned out helping now-President Barack Obama win 55 percent of the vote.

As of February, there are some 3 million registered voters in South Carolina compared to 2.2 million in 2008.

Moore expects turnout to reach at least 650,000 for the GOP vote on Feb. 20.

“I think we’ll get a new record,” Moore said.