Diverse Views And Trick Politics, Why The GOP Primary In SC May Be The Dirtiest In The Country

Feb 12, 2016

The lobby of the South Carolina Republican Party Headquarters is filled with campaign signs and stickers.
Credit Tom Bullock / WFAE

Normally, when the Republican presidential campaigns head to the warmer weather of South Carolina, a lot of the race has been sorted. Not this year.

"Cruz has a win. Trump has a win. Others need a win if they’re going to stay viable," said Adolphus Belk, a political scientist at Winthrop University.

Getting a win here can be tricky. Belk notes that while South Carolina is home to a sizable evangelical block of Republican voters, there are also "folks that are big on national  security, terrorism. And then you have the folks that may be more moderate on social issues but are fiscally conservative."

Belk says South Carolina has it all, "from the staunch social conservative to the moderate minded fiscal conservatives and everyone in between. They’re all here."

And the political game in South Carolina is a whole lot different than New Hampshire or Iowa. "It’s not the kind of state where you can put stickers and palm cards on every door," says South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Matt Moore, "You need a better strategy than that."

First, take the sheer size of the electorate. People in Iowa and New Hampshire have collectively cast just over 470,000 votes for Republican presidential candidates this year. In South Carolina, Moore says, "we expect upwards of 650,000 people to vote just in the Republican primary."

All these voters, representing different factions in the Republican Party means a winning candidate must build a coalition. "There's no single constituency," says political scientist Scott Huffmon, "which is why you need to kick the legs out from under as many of your opponents as you can. And that’s probably what the South Carolina consultants are telling each and every one of their candidate clients."

Adolphus Belk agrees, "yeah, there’s a lot riding here. And when the stakes are high and people are desperate, things can get nasty."

For current South Carolina front-runners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the attacks are found in ads.

Like this Donald Trump spot which aired for a few days in South Carolina:

It calls Cruz the ultimate Washington insider and asks, "Who runs a campaign accused of dirty tricks that tried to sabotage Ben Carson with false rumors? Ted Cruz." The ad was pulled by the Trump campaign late Thursday.

Cruz’s campaign has their own spot on YouTube.

It involves kids playing Donald Trump and uttering lines like "I gave money to Pelosi, Reed and Anthony Weiner," which, of course, causes the kids to laugh. Then they get back to playing by saying, "Hey Hillary, I’ll give you money to be my friend."

But all this may be just child's play in terms of South Carolina politics says Huffmon. "You know this is where Lee Atwater is from. And Lee Atwater is godfather of modern dirty politics."

Lee Atwater
Credit YouTube

Atwater was the brains behind the Willie Horton ad many believe won the first President Bush the White House.  But that, says Huffmon was comparatively tame.

Take Atwater’s 1980 attack on South Carolina candidate named Tom Turnipseed. "It came out that Turnipseed had shock therapy as a teenager. Atwater came out and made a quip about candidates being hooked up to jumper cables. And a lot of political consultants in South Carolina view him as a hero."

And they added to his playbook. Back in 2000, there were attacks on John McCain. "There were flyers slipped under windshield wipers at McCain events saying 'did you know John McCain had a black baby?'"  And a black mistress. For the record, John McCain has an adopted daughter from Bangladesh.

There were also rumors being spread that McCain was some kind of Manchurian Candidate says Huffmon, "a whisper campaign that you couldn’t trust John McCain because he had been a POW and might have been brainwashed."

In 2007 a bogus Christmas card was sent to South Carolina Republicans. It included a line stating, “We have now clearly shown that God the Father had a plurality of wives.” It was signed, "Wishing you and your family a happy holiday season, The Romney Family.” 

And in 2012, there was the website phonyfred.org. "Which was essentially a hit piece." Huffmon recalls it was a website which existed for no other reason than "to attack Fred Thompson. And it ended up being tied to consultants related to Mitt Romney’s campaign."

And the consultant the Washington Post tied to the phoney Fred website now works on behalf of candidate Marco Rubio. He will be fighting it out with John Kasich and Jeb Bush. "Experience tells us that Rubio campaign operatives pride themselves on a bag of dirty tricks," says Jim Dyke, senior advisor for the Bush Campaign. "They have a long history of engaging in these types of tactics and so obviously we’re on the lookout for them."

When asked to comment on those claims Rubio spokesman Joe Pounder issued a statement which reads in part "we're not surprised that Jeb Bush would resort to saying anything to try to deflect from his own flailing campaign."

The Rubio campaign itself has been targeted. Right to Rise USA, a SuperPAC backing Jeb Bush, posted this ad this week

It features a toy robot and Rubio’s repetition of talking points during the last Republican debate.

Whether they come as ads, phone calls, rumors, whatever, history shows us things get personal and nasty in South Carolina.

Adding to the fever here is this, South Carolina is the first primary where the winner takes all the delegates. Making even the smallest margin of victory that much more important.