Advancing a Free Society

Perry on Fire … With a Firewall in South Carolina?

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

For a quarter of a century now, Republicans have referred to South Carolina as the “firewall” of the presidential-nominating process – the idea being that a frontrunner could stumble in the Iowa caucuses or New Hampshire primary, but prevent their fortunes from going further south by turning south to conservative loyalists in the Palmetto State’s “first in the South” primary.

The concept, as devised and coin-phrased by the late campaign strategist Lee Atwater, did wonders for the elder George Bush in 1988. His son also used the rough playing fields of South Carolina to lay waste to rival John McCain in 2000 (McCain’s patriotism and mental stability getting dragged through the mud).

In 2008, it was McCain’s turn to deploy the “firewall”. Instead of putting social conservatives in a harsh light, as he did in his previous “maverick” campaign, the Arizona senator instead served up healthy servings of southern comfort food: military strength/preparedness and fiscal conservatism (the latter issue especially strong in a state whose five Republican congressmen call themselves “The Firewall Five” for their steadfast opposition to debt-ceiling increases).

South Carolina’s winning streak – the primary’s winner also winning the GOP nomination, dating back to Ronald Reagan in 1980 – is on the line in 2012.

At present, there are two defining features worth mentioning:

1) The Perry Surge. A just-released Public Policy Polling survey gives Texas Gov. Rick Perry a 20-point lead over his main rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in South Carolina (36%-16%) – and 23 points ahead of Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann (PPP’s June state numbers: Romney 30%, Newt Gingrich/Herman Cain 15%, Bachmann 13%). As with the Iowa caucuses, where Romney may have to rethink his options, Perry’s meteoric rise to the top of GOP field in another early-primary state raises questions as to whether Romney can compete and win in the conservative South.

2) The DeMint Primary. Romney’s changed his schedule to attend this weekend’s Palmetto Freedom Forum, which he’d previously declined (it’s open to all Republicans who average at least 5% in Real Clear Politics’ average of national polls). It won’t be a debate. Instead, it’s South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint asking the questions. DeMint endorsed Romney in 2008. Now, he’s telling South Carolina donors “to keep the power dry” until after the forum. Translation: DeMint wants to hear the three little words that melt any Tea Partier’s heart – “cut, cap & balance”.

A few thoughts about those South Carolina numbers that have some folks talking about the Perry candidacy as a fait accompli . . .

The presumption is Perry’s southern roots and faith-based identity combine to give him a natural “in” with South Carolina voters – perhaps too much of an inherent advantage for a non-southerner like Romney to overcome (you might recall that Perry kicked off his presidential run in South Carolina, not his native Texas).

But remember: former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee had the same “street cred” going up against McCain in 2008 – and it didn’t pan out.

Huckabee played the geography card (“support a Southerner who has run a southern state”). On the stump, the ordained Baptist minister did his best to connect with an electorate that was roughly 60% evangelical Christians.

Huckabee led in South Carolina following his surprise win in the Iowa caucuses. But McCain’s win in New Hampshire changed things. Going into the day of the primary vote, McCain averaged 1% ahead of Huckabee in statewide polls. But when the numbers were tallied, McCain won by 3% (a shade over 33% to Huckabee’s 30%).

Huckabee was doomed in part by another southerner, former Sen. Fred Thompson, taking 15% of the vote. But he also underperformed among evangelical Christians, earning only 40% of that key bloc.

What McCain had going for him in South Carolina was a combination of momentum, lots of political and media endorsements, the aforementioned message discipline, and a divided non-McCain vote.

Should Romney decide to compete in South Carolina following this weekend’s forum, he’ll need to replicate that formula: win in New Hampshire, court the media, hope Bachmann cuts into Perry’s take, and find a message that works for both Sen. DeMint and his constituency.

(photo credit: Ed Schipul)