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Despite dropping out and endorsing Graham, third-party candidate could hurt SC senator

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Lindsey Graham (copy)

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks at a news conference announcing endorsements from law enforcement officials in Florence on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020. File/Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

COLUMBIA — U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham touted an endorsement Thursday from Constitution Party nominee Bill Bledsoe, hoping to rid himself of a thorn in his side that risked peeling away a small but potentially pivotal number of conservative votes in South Carolina's competitive U.S. Senate race.

But even though Bledsoe announced he will vote for Graham because of his support of President Donald Trump's conservative judicial nominees, that does not necessarily mean other voters will follow suit.

Bledsoe's announcement came too late for him to be removed from South Carolina ballots, meaning voters will still see him as one of three candidate options alongside Graham and Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison, who have been neck-and-neck in recent polls. Voters can also choose to write-in somebody else.

Not only will Bledsoe be on the ballot, he will be listed at the top, above both Graham and Harrison, thanks to a rotational system that cycles parties to prime position in different election years. Political science research has consistently shown that placement at the top of the ballot helps a candidate's performance.

There is plenty of precedent for South Carolina candidates receiving a substantial number of votes even after dropping out of races.

In 2012, then-state Rep. Ted Vick was arrested for driving under the influence and dropped out of a congressional race. But Vick still received more than 7 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary shortly thereafter.

Amanda Loveday, who was executive director of the S.C. Democratic Party at the time, said the experience shows people cannot assume all voters will read the news or care that the candidate they are voting for has dropped out of the race.

"There's a lot of assumptions being made and you can't assume when the election is this close," Loveday said. "This was a very miscalculated political play by the Graham campaign."

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Earlier this year, five Democratic presidential candidates withdrew before South Carolina's primary but after the deadline to remove their names from the ballot. Election officials put up signs at polling locations making clear those candidates had withdrawn, but they still combined to receive more than 3,000 votes.

In 2014, former S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell received almost 40 percent of the vote for his reelection bid even though signs in polling locations indicated that he had withdrawn from the race because he had just pleaded guilty to violating state ethics laws two weeks earlier.

This time, state election officials will not be putting up signs to indicate which candidates have dropped out, spokesman Chris Whitmire said. So if voters have not read the news that Bledsoe, the race's only active third-party candidate, dropped out, they will have no way of knowing it happened when they step into the voting booth and see his name on the ballot.

This will be the second consecutive U.S. Senate race in which Bledsoe has appeared on the ballot. In 2016, he received almost 40,000 votes as a fusion candidate for both the Constitution and Libertarian parties, good for about 2 percent.

In Graham's last reelection race in 2014, independent candidate Thomas Ravenel and Libertarian nominee Victor Kocher combined to receive more than 6 percent of the vote. The South Carolina Libertarian Party decided not to nominate anyone in this year's U.S. Senate race.

Bledsoe had done little to no campaigning in this year's Senate race and the vast majority of voters have never heard of him. But with the word "Constitution" next to his name on the ballot, political strategists expected he could be a difference-maker if the margin between Graham and Harrison is thin.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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