"I think...we're a little crazy and cantankerous, and we're always sort of different in throwing a monkey wrench in the machinery, but fundamentally I think we're a pretty good reflection of America."
                                                                 --Phil Noble


South Carolina has held the first-in-the-South Republican presidential primary since 1980.  State Republicans are proud of the primary (1, 2).  Through to the 2012 campaign, the South Carolina GOP primary had acquired a reputation as a "firewall" where the frontrunner was able to fend off a strong challenger and "seal the deal."  The state party noted that, "Since the inception of the South Carolina Primary in 1980, no candidate has ever lost the South Carolina Primary and gone on to become the Republican Party's nominee for President."  In 2012 that distinction was lost; Newt Gingrich achieved a strong win in the South Carolina primary, but Mitt Romney rebounded in Florida and went on to win the nomination.

Democrats have less experience with the South Carolina presidential primary.  In 2004 the primary was relatively early, on February 3, and Sen. John Edwards, the Southerner in the race, won.  In 2006 the Democratic National Committee voted to add South Carolina as a new pre-window primary, thus reinforcing the state's early position. Sen. Barack Obama handily won the Jan. 26, 2008 primary.

South Carolina is one of the few states where Democrats and Republicans vote on different dates; the Republican primary took place on Feb. 20, 2016 and the Democratic primary on Feb. 27, 2016.

Dynamics of the Races

The primary races in South Carolina did not get as much attention as Iowa and New Hampshire did, but campaigns did a lot of work here. 

On the Republican side, the race was distorted somewhat by the candidacy of home state Sen. Lindsey Graham.  Graham's candidacy did not deter other candidates from working the Palmetto State, but appeared to slow the pace of endorsements, for example.  Graham suspended his campaign on Dec. 21, 2015 (+), and other campaigns worked to attract his supporters.  Visits to South Carolina and time spent in the state was fairly similar among the candidates. 

A total of 16 Republican candidates filed to appear on the primary ballot by the Sept. 30 deadlline (+) despite the high $40,000 filing fee.  (Walker and Jindal subsequently suspended their campaigns and were able to remove their names, although their filing fees are forfeited).  On Nov. 30, SCGOP chairman Matt Moore certified 14 candidates to appear on the ballot (+).   

On the Democratic side, the race was considerably quieter.  For Democrats, the Nevada caucuses preceded the South Carolina primary so this was the fourth contest.  Former Sec. of State Hillary Clinton was seen as having an advantage due to her support in the African-American community.  There was little activity in the way of candidate visits, just a trickle, but the campaigns of Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders built active organizations.  (Former Gov. Martin O'Malley had a tiny organization before he dropped out).  On Dec. 8 the SCDP executive council certified four candidates to appear on the ballot (+). 

A Varied State

South Carolina has a population of 4.8 million.  Its 46 counties stretch from the Coastal Plain to the Piedmont Plateau (Pee Dee) to the Blue Ridge Mountains.  There are stark differences.  Upstate is a strong area for social conservatives.  For example, Bob Jones University, described in a 1966 article as "The Buckle on the Bible Belt" is located in Greenville  In historic Charleston, one finds stately mansions and a genteel atmosphere, attracting many tourists.  About 28% of South Carolina's population consider themselves Black or African American, based on the 2010 Census, but in nine counties the Black or African American population is over 50%, topped by Allendale County at 72.9%.  At the other extreme in Pickens County the Black or African American population is 6.8%.  There is also a significant veterans population; the South Carolina State Office of Veterans' Affairs reports 420,968 veterans make South Carolina home >

Several significant events occurred in South Carolina during this cycle.  All campaigning was put on hold for a time following the murder of nine black churchgoers at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston on June 17, 2015.  On July 10, the Confederate flag was removed from the State House grounds.  In early October Hurriicane Joaquin and other weather systems converged to produce a "1-in-1,000 year rain event" which led to record rainfalls and massive flooding in the state.

2014 Sets the Stage

In the pre-campaign period, the 2014 mid-term elections provided ample opportunity for visiting presidential prospects to help out candidates and committees of their respective parties.  The governor's race attracted the most attention.  Gov. Nikki Haley (R) faced a re-match with state Sen. Vincent Sheheen (D), whom she defeated in 2010 by a margin of 51.4% to 47.0% (59,991 votes out of more than 1.3 million cast).  This time the race was not as close, and Haley defeated Sheheen by 55.9% to 41.4%.  In the lieutenant governor's race, Henry McMaster (R) defeated Bakari Sellers (D) by 58.8% to 41.1%.  Both U.S. Senate seats were up, but they proved relatively lopsided; Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) defeated Brad Hutto (D) and Tim Scott (R) defeated Joyce Dickerson (D). 

All told through Election Day Nov. 4, 2014, 13 Republican presidential prospects made 37 visits totalling 45 days, while three Democratic prospects made 11 visits totaling 12 days.  On the Republican side, Sen. Paul led with the most visits, six, but Gov. Perry, Sen. Cruz, former Sen. Santorum and Gov. Jindal were not far behind.  On the Democratic side, Gov. O'Malley, Sen. Sanders and Vice President Biden all spent four days in state, but O'Malley was most active helping candidates, including paying at least four staff to work on Democratic campaigns through his PAC.  The independent Ready for Hillary super PAC was active as well; it held its first South Carolina fundraiser in Feb. 2014, its Hillary bus made stops at five college campuses in Aug. 2014, and South Carolina was one of 14 states where it sent staff to work on Democratic campaigns from Oct. 1. 

During the primaries, potential presidential prospects mostly avoided getting involved in primary contests.  A noteworthy exception occurred in the June 10 primary race for lieutenant governor, where former Sen. Rick Santorum endorsed Hugh McMaster and former Gov. Mike Huckabee endorsed Mike Campbell.  McMaster finished comfortably ahead in the primary but fell short of 50-percent; he went on to win the June 24 runoff. 

Primary Nuts and Bolts

 Unlike in many states, in past South Carolina's presidential primaries have been party-run affairs; this posed a substantial financial and logistical challenge for the state parties which had to raise the funds privately.  The tradition of Saturday voting arose to reduce costs and increase turnout. 

In mid-2007 the General Assembly passed, over then-Gov. Mark Sanford (R)'s objections, a bill which required State Election Commission to run the presidential preference primaries, while leaving the setting of the primary dates and other details to the party committees.  The General Assembly passed S99 on June 5, 2007, Gov. Sanford vetoed the bill on June 14, and the General Assembly voted to override the veto on June 19.  The law referred specifically to the 2008 cycle. 

The issue came up again as budget negotiations proceeded in the first half of 2011; Gov. Nikki Haley opposed efforts by legislators to keep money in the budget to fund the 2012 Republican primary (+). Haley argued that private funds should be used, and she vetoed those provisions on June 28 (Vetoes 27 and 28 of H.3700, The General Appropriation Bill >).  However, on June 29 the legislature overrode that veto.

The cost of running the 2008 Democratic and Republican presidential primaries, which were conducted on different days—Jan. 19 for the Republicans and Jan. 26 for the Democrats—amounted to $2.4 million.  Those costs were borne by the State Election Commission and to a lesser extent by county officials.  (The SEC reimburses counties for most of the major expenses such as hiring poll managers, producing ballots, and printing election notices; other costs such as hiring temporary employees or renting trucks to deliver polling machines are the counties' responsibility).

In 2012 South Carolina Republicans held their primary on January 21.  President Obama was the only candidate on the ballot, so Democrats did not hold a primary; instead they held precinct reorganization and presidential preference meetings on January 28 and March 3, 2012.  To participate in the Republican presidential primary, candidates were required to pay a certification fee of $25,000 before May 3, 2011 or $35,000 from May 4 to the filing deadline on November 1, 2011 at 5:00 p.m..  (The certification fee seems extraordinarily high, but $20,000 of that goes to the SEC as required by Code.  Section 7-11-20(B)(2) (>) states, "A filing fee not to exceed twenty thousand dollars, as determined by the State Election Commission, for each candidate certified by a political party must be transmitted by the respective political party to the State Election Commission and must be used for conducting the presidential preference primaries.")  Ten candidates filed to compete in the primary which cost the SEC $1.3 million to run. 

(In 2011 there was some pushback from counties over costs of the presidential primary; they pointed to language in the Code specifically referring to the 2008 election cycle.  The South Carolina Attorney General weighed in on the matter in June 2011 (+), and the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled against the counties in Beaufort County v. SC Election Commission, issued Nov. 22, 2011 (>).  In mid-2014 the legislature passed and Gov. Haley signed into law a bill clarifying the language on presidential primaries (>)).     

For 2016, Republicans and Democrats both conducted primaries; the SEC estimated cost of the presidential primaries at $2.5 million.  To participate in the Republican presidential primary, candidates were required to file and pay a non-refundable certification fee of $40,000 before Sept. 30, 2015.  As noted above, $20,000 of that went to the SEC.  The Democratic filing period was Dec. 15, 2015-Jan. 4, 2016.

Republican Candidate Filings
July 27
Sen. Marco Rubio
July 31
George P. Bush for former Gov. Jeb Bush
Aug. 17
Gov. John Kasich
Aug. 24
Dr. Ben Carson
Aug. 28
Gov. Scott Walker
Aug. 29
Sen. Ted Cruz
Sept. 1
Sen. Lindsey Graham
Sept. 18
former Sen. Rick Santorum
Sept. 18
Gov. Bobby Jindal
Sept. 22
former Gov. Mike Huckabee
Sept. 23
Carly Fiorina
Sept. 23
Donald Trump
Sept. 28
Kelley Paul for Sen. Rand Paul
Sept. 28
former Gov. Jim Gilmore
Sept. 28
Gov. Chris Christie  by mail
Sept. 30
former Gov. George Pataki  by mail

Historical Perspective

Kendra Stewart, professor at the College of Charleston, states, "South Carolina can be expected to do the unexpected.  The primary here is often a game changer – South Carolina tends to go against the grain and picks the candidate who is not the likely suspect."  Phil Noble, president of the South Carolina New Democrats and founder and CEO of Phil Noble & Associates and Politics Online, describes his fellow Palmetto Staters thusly, "I think...we're a little crazy and cantankerous, and we're always sort of different in throwing a monkey wrench in the machinery, but fundamentally I think we're a pretty good reflection of America." 
Racial politics are still a factor.  The Confederate battle flag flew atop the Capitol Dome in Columbia until 2000, when, after considerable debate, it was relegated to a flagpole at the Confederate Soldier Monument on the Statehouse grounds.  In his 2014 gubernatorial campaign, the Democratic candidate for governor Vincent Sheehen argued that the flag should be moved off the Statehouse grounds.  In July the flag was removed.  For Democrats, the African-American vote is very significant. 

Republican candidates meanwhile appealed to a number of audiences including social conservatives in Upstate and Tea Party activists concerned about big government.  South Carolina does have somewhat of a reputation for dirty tricks in politics.  In 2011, asked about the slow start of the presidential primary campaign, Phil Noble stated, "SC has a long history of brutal Republican presidential primaries.  I suspect that one reason that they have been slow to engage down here is the same reason most kids don't stick their hand into a barking pit bull's mouth—once you engage, its going to be painful, noisy, bloody and an altogether nasty experience."  The 2016 GOP primary saw its share of charges and countercharges (+).

The "firewall" reputation traces to the first South Carolina Republican presidential primary campaign in 1979-80, when legendary operative Lee Atwater, with help from some dirty tricks, was able to orchestrate Ronald Reagan's 55% to 30% win over John Connally, with Iowa caucus winner George H.W. Bush running a distant third at 15%. 

In 1988, after mixed results in the earliest contests, Atwater steered now Vice President George H.W. Bush to a 49% showing over Bob Dole and Steve Forbes in South Carolina.
In 1992, after Pat Buchanan gained a surprisingly strong showing in the New Hampshire primary, President George H. W. Bush rebounded with resounding win in South Carolina. 

In 1996, after mixed results in the earliest contests Bob Dole defeated Pat Buchanan by 45% to 29%.

In 2000 Sen. John McCain came into South Carolina with momentum from his win in the New Hampshire primary only to encounter a scurrilous whispering campaign and fall to Gov. George W. Bush by 53.4% to 41.9%. 

Sen. John McCain's 2008 win over former Gov. Mike Huckabee in South Carolina, while not overwhelming, was an important step on his road to the nomination. McCain and Huckabee roughly split the counties, Huckabee winning 24 to McCain's 22. 

Thus, in election after election insurgent-type candidates fell short in South Carolina Republican presidential primaries.  Until 2012.

In 2012, amid record turnout, Newt Gingrich achieved a broad win, carrying all but three counties; Romney finished first in Richland County (Columbia) and Charleston and Beaufort Counties on the coast.  While a couple of debates prior to the primary (1, 2) were important, cultural differences were also a significant factor; Romney, a Mormon from Massachussetts, simply could not connect with some sectors of the electorate.  [see also: economic impact of the GOP primary]

By the time the primary arrived on Feb. 20, 2016 the Republican field had been pared to six candidates.  Donald Trump carried 44 of 46 counties, finishing with a margin of 74,314 votes (10.03 percentage points) over the next nearest candidate Sen. Marco Rubio.  Trump's share of the vote was a relatively low 32.5%.  Rubio had a some key South Carolina operatives on his campaign team.  He gained the endorsements of Gov. Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott and Rep. Trey Gowdy, and managed a second place finish, regaining some of his "Marcomentum;" he carried Richland and Charleston counties.  South Carolina, seen as ideal territory for Cruz's strong social conservative message, provided a bit of a setback as he finished third, well behind Trump and narrowly trailing Marco Rubio.  Allegations of lying and dirty tricks likely hurt Cruz (+).  Bush had seemed to be well positioned in South Carolina; he had a well-respected campaign team.  In mid-January Sen. Lindsey Graham endorsed him, and some observers thought Graham's organization would provide a further boost.  However, Bush's support collapsed and he ended his campaign that night. 

Map Showing Votes by County
740,881 votes were cast in the Republican primary.  [Click for details]

Top Finishers and Turnout in Recent South Carolina Republican Primaries
Feb. 20, 2016
Trump 240,882 (32.5%),  Rubio 166,565 (22.5%),  Cruz 165,417 (22.3%),  Bush 58,056 (7.8%),  Kasich 56,410 (7.6%),  Carson 53,551 (7.2%)

Jan. 21, 2012 Gingrich 244,113 (40.4%),  Romney 168,152 (27.9%),  Santorum 102,482 (17.0%),  Paul 78,362 (13.0%),  Others 10,747 (1.8%).  603,856

Jan. 19, 2008 McCain 147,686 (33.2%),  Huckabee 132,943 (29.8%),  F.Thompson 69,651 (15.6%),  Romney 68,142 (15.3%),  Others 27,077 (6.1%).

Feb. 19, 2000
Bush 305,998 (53.4%),  McCain 239,964 (41.9%),  Keyes 25,996 (4.5%),  Others 1,143 (0.2%). 573,101

March 2, 1996
Dole 124,904 (45.1%),  Buchanan 80,824 (29.2%),  Forbes 35,039 (12.7%),  Alexander 28,647 (10.4%),  Others 7,327 (2.7%).
                         See also:  South Carolina Republican Party: "First in the South: South Carolina's Presidential Pimary History."

In 2004 John Edwards, who was born in Seneca, SC, benefited from his Southern roots in a strong win over Sen. John Kerry.

2008 saw record turnout.  Many blacks supported the historic candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama, and Sen. Hillary Clinton lagged far behind. 

On Feb. 27, 2016 Hillary Clinton scored a lopsided win over Sen. Bernie Sanders, carrying every county.

Top Finishers and Turnout in Recent South Carolina Democratic Primaries
Feb. 27, 2016
Clinton 272,379 (73.44%),  Sanders 96,498 (26.02%),  Wilson 1,314 (0.35%),  O'Malley 713 (0.19%)

Jan. 26, 2008
Obama 294,898 (55.4%),  Clinton 140,990 (26.5%),  Edwards 93,801 (17.6%),  Others 2,462 (0.5%).

Feb. 3, 2004
Edwards 125,944 (45.3%),  Kerry 82,668 (29.8%),  Sharpton 26,755 (9.6%), Clark 19,999 (7.2%),  Dean 13,029 (4.7%),  Others 9,342 (3.4%).

Note: DNC and RNC rules differ on the timing of the 2016 South Carolina primary.  DNC rules specify specific dates for the four early states, including Feb. 27, 2016 for South Carolina; RNC rules have a general carve-out period.  As happened in 2008, the two parties' primaries will be held on different dates.

DNC rules specify earliest dates for the four early states:

Rule 11 - "...Provided, however, that the Iowa precinct caucuses may be held no earlier than 29 days before the first Tuesday in March; that the New Hampshire primary may be held no earlier than 21 days before the first Tuesday in March; that the Nevada first-tier caucuses may be held no earlier than 10 days before the first Tuesday in March; and that the South Carolina primary may be held no earlier than 3 days before the first Tuesday in March..."

RNC rules have a general carve-out period that covers the four early states:

Rule 16 (4) (c) (1) - "No primary, caucus, convention, or other process to elect, select, allocate, or bind delegates to the national convention shall occur prior to March 1 or after the second Saturday in June in the year in which a national convention is held. Except Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada may conduct their processes no earlier than one month before the next earliest state in the year in which a national convention is held and shall not be subject to the provisions of paragraph (c)(2) of this rule."

Dem. Visits   |  Rep. Visits


Rep. Endorse


Key Dates

May 9 - South Carolina Freedom Summit at the Peace Center in Greenville.

Ongong (July 6 - Dec. 14) - Tim's Town Halls

Sept. 18 - Heritage Action Presidential Candidate Forum at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville.

Sept. 30 at 5 p.m. - Deadline to file for the Republican primary.  Filing Form  [PDF]  |  FAQ.

Jan. 9 - Kemp Forum at Columbia Convention Center in Columbia.

Jan. 14 - RNC sanctoned debate (FOX Business) in No. Charleston (+)

Jan. 20 - Voter registration deadline.

Feb.13 - RNC sanctioned debate (CBS News).in Greenville (+)

Feb. 20 - South Carolina Republican Primary.


See: South Carolina Delegeta Selection Plan And Affirmative Action Plan [PDF]

Nov. 6 - Presidential Candidates Forum hosted by the South Carolina Democratic Party and Congressman James Clyburn at Winthrop University.

Nov.. 16 at 9 a.m. - Filing period opens.
Dec. 4 at noon - Filing period closes.
Filing Form [PDF] 

Jan. 17 - DNC-sanctioned debate in  Charleston, SC (NBC/CBC Institute).

Feb. 27 - South Carolina Democratic Primary.