Editor’s Note: Newt Gingrich’s decision to end his presidential campaign next week means South Carolina’s streak of picking the GOP presidential nominee is officially over.
Does it matter that this state’s Republicans can no longer brag that the winner here has gone on to win their party’s nomination?
Yes South Carolina Republicans no longer pick GOP presidential nominees — and they may lose their early voting status and a bit of their sheen as a result.
In all five contested GOP presidential primaries since 1980, whoever won here has become the party’s nominee.
No more. On Jan. 21 the Palmetto State went solidly for Newt Gingrich, who won only one other contest (in his native Georgia) before deciding this week to bow out of the race.
The streak’s demise could reverberate in the run-up to the 2016 race, said Winthrop University political science professor Scott Huffmon.
“We will be threatened by Florida for ‘First in the South’ status, and a bit of our state’s luster has faded,” he said. “Our relevance to the importance of the early rounds will be questioned by some.”
As importantly, it raises the question of whether S.C. Republicans are becoming so conservative that they are unwilling to consider more moderate party members, such as former President George H.W. Bush or former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole — both of whom won here.
Gingrich won here largely based on his performance in this state’s two debates, where the audience cheered and booed and carried on.
“You might add that the debate format in Myrtle Beach and Charleston helped skew the outcome here and that hurt the state,” said Clemson University political scientist Dave Woodard.
“We looked like right-wing nuts,” he joked. “Wait, that’s what we are.”
Robert Behre No With Newt Gingrich dropping out, South Carolina’s 30-year selection streak in picking the presidential nominee is over.
Does it mean much? Not really. Beyond the loss of bragging rights that date to Ronald Reagan in 1980, the key elements remain for the state to keep the most important plum, its first-in-the-South primary placement.
Consider what national party leaders see: The state’s population of retirees on the coast is growing, and so is the pool of evangelical voters in the Upstate and suburbanites almost everywhere.
Plus, the state is immensely attractive for its small media market where war chests don’t get drained.
The 40 percent of GOP voters who cast a ballot for Gingrich Jan. 21 also probably did Mitt Romney a favor, experts said. After South Carolina, Romney became more aggressive in Florida, performed better in debates and was able to define the weaknesses of his sniping opponents.
Former Francis Marion University political scientist Neal Thigpen, a longtime follower of Republican politics, said the Gingrich win here more accurately represented South Carolina’s turn at proving that nothing is ever certain in politics, as voters play their litmus role of screening candidates.
South Carolina “is still a place that, always on the Republican side, will be the first test of Southern conservative sentiment,” Thigpen said. “That in all likelihood will never change.”