John A. Carlos II

Protesters hold up signs at a rally against off-shore drilling held at the Statehouse in Columbia on Tuesday. File/John A. Carlos II /Special to The Post and Courier

A narrow majority of South Carolinians — 51 percent — oppose drilling for oil off the state's coast, but that tight divide quickly breaks down along party lines and geography, according to a new poll.

The findings from Winthrop University show 54 percent of residents in the state's eight coastal communities — Beaufort, Charleston, Colleton, Georgetown, Horry and Jasper counties — oppose drilling, compared with 37 percent who support it.

Meanwhile, some 63 percent of self-identified Republicans told Winthrop pollsters they support offshore drilling, compared with 71 percent of Democrats who do not.

That could spell trouble for Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, who is now at odds with his base on this issue at a time when he's trying to fend off four other GOP challengers in the 2018 governor's race.

Since the Trump administration announced plans to open nearly all coastal areas in the United States for offshore oil and gas exploration, McMaster has repeatedly pushed the White House to exempt South Carolina from offshore drilling.

"If this were the middle of a term, it really wouldn't matter that much," said Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon, who runs the poll. "He would be free to oppose the Trump administration and listen to the businessmen and women who say this could hurt tourism.

"But anything that he does now is definitely going to start one or more bells ringing for those who are also seeking his chair," he added.

That could be the least of McMaster's worries.

Struggling for recognition

Though South Carolinians appear to have a high regard for their GOP governor, Huffmon said McMaster has failed to make his mark on the governorship.

McMaster, who became governor after Nikki Haley left to become United Nations ambassador, currently holds a 47 percent approval rate and a 25 percent disapproval rate, according to the poll. But the percentage of respondents who had no opinion on McMaster is also hovering at 25 percent.

"Gov. McMaster's approval numbers are nearly double his disapproval numbers, so he is definitely 'above water,' " Huffmon said. "But having one quarter of respondents not feeling they can evaluate his performance means he must get out in front of the average resident and put his stamp on the office."

The findings mirror a recent poll by Morning Consult, which also found 25 percent of South Carolina voters either don't know or have no opinion on McMaster.

At the same time, Winthrop's poll numbers revealed an interesting development in a state where President Donald Trump handily won 55 percent of the vote.

Who's in trouble?

The Winthrop poll saw Trump's disapproval rate climb to 50 percent among the 976 South Carolina residents polled. But Trump's statewide 42 percent approval rating still fares slightly better than his 39 percent national approval rating from Gallup.

Congress, however, is another matter.

Only 11 percent of South Carolina residents said they approve of the work Congress is doing.

Though the poll did not ask respondents about every member of South Carolina's congressional delegation, it did zero in on the state's two Republican U.S. senators.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, the state's senior senator, got the nod of approval from 42 percent of those surveyed, while 35 percent disapproved. Among Republicans and those who lean Republican, Graham fared slightly worse with a 41 percent approval rating and disapproval at 51 percent.

The state's junior senator, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, was much more highly rated among the Republican base. He had a 75 percent approval rating among the GOP, while his popularity among the general public is at 53 percent.

When asked what they thought was the most important issue facing the nation, respondents named gun violence first, followed by politicians/government, moral values, racism and immigration.

The survey of 976 South Carolina residents was conducted by phone Feb. 17-25, less than a week after the shooting at a Florida high school where 17 people were killed.

The overall results had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percent.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.