Studying Politics in an Early State: Lessons from Being ‘First in the South’

Gibbs Knotts, Professor of Political Science and Jordan Ragusa, Associate Professor of Political Science at the College of Charleston, are guest contributors for the RAISE the Vote Campaign. The views expressed in the posts and articles featured in the RAISE the Vote campaign are those of the authors and contributors alone and do not represent the views of APSA.

Photo provided by the College of Charleston

In a country with over 325 million people, we have a peculiar way of selecting presidential nominees. Instead of holding a national primary, or a series of regional primaries, four states (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina) hold disproportionate power in the race for the White House.

Fortunately for us, we have a front row seat to the 2020 contest as political scientists in the early state of South Carolina.  In addition to interacting with voters and talking with political reporters, the College of Charleston’s “Bully Pulpit Series” frequently hosts presidential candidates.

Readers of this blog certainly know that Iowa and New Hampshire play vital roles in narrowing the field of presidential hopefuls, but there has been much less research in political science on the role that Nevada and South Carolina play. To partially fill this gap, we recently completed a book about the South Carolina presidential primary entitled First in the South: Why South Carolina’s Presidential Primary Matters (USC Press, 2019).

How did the United States end up with the current system of state-by-state primaries and caucuses? Presidential primaries increased following the tumultuous 1968 Democratic convention and as a result of the proposed reforms from the McGovern-Fraser Commission. Republicans followed the lead of Democrats, increasing the number of primaries in the 1972 and 1976 election cycles.

In South Carolina, the state’s presidential primary was created by Republicans, not Democrats. Although Democrats dominated state politics from Reconstruction through the 1970s, South Carolina’s state GOP party chair proposed a presidential primary to build support for the party and lure voters away from Democrats. State GOP officials held the first presidential primary in 1980, a primary that was designed to have a national impact and position South Carolina as the first state in the South. South Carolina Democrats held their first primary in 1992 and secured “first-in-the-South” status in 2004.

Photo provided by the College of Charleston

In our book, we introduce several concepts that students of American politics should consider (and empirically evaluate) when studying presidential primaries and caucuses. First, we talk about a state’s “predictive ability.” If four states occupy privileged positions on the electoral calendar, it seems appropriate to evaluate how well they predict the eventual nominee. As it turns out, South Carolina has been remarkably accurate since adopting the first southern primary, selecting the eventual winner in six of seven contested elections since 1980. On the Democratic side, South Carolina voters have selected the party’s nominee in three of four contested elections since the first primary in 1992.

We also talk about state “representativeness,” considering the degree to which a state’s primary voters are representative of a party’s national electorate. For this we draw on exit polls between 2000 and 2016 to show that South Carolina is not only more representative of the national Republican electorate compared to Iowa and New Hampshire, but ranks as the third most representative Republican state in the country.  We argue that this high level of representativeness is a major factor in why Republican voters have been so accurate in selecting the eventual nominee.

Photo provided by the College of Charleston

On the Democratic side, the state has far less representativeness. South Carolina Democrats have lower incomes and less education and tend to be more religious and more conservative than national Democrats.  However, many of South Carolina’s outlying features add critical balance to the slate of early states. Most importantly, the state adds racial diversity compared to Iowa and New Hampshire. By most estimates over 60 percent of South Carolina Democratic primary voters are African American.

Our book also considers the factors that it takes to win the South Carolina primary.  Our students helped collect data on all the candidates who competed in the South Carolina primary between 1988 and 2016.  For Republicans, a candidate’s performance in Iowa, but not New Hampshire, had a big impact on success in South Carolina.  For Democrats, African American candidates do particularly well in the state’s Democratic primary.  And, for both parties, southern candidates, and those from the neighboring states of Georgia and North Carolina, also perform well in South Carolina.

In our analysis of what it takes to win the South Carolina primary perhaps the most interesting result is what does not matter.  Namely, candidates with fundraising advantages, those who have run for elected office previously, and those who have campaigned in a past primary in the state do not have an advantage over less experienced and underfunded candidates.  In this respect, political newcomers can perform well in, and win, the South Carolina primary.

In our book we sidestep normative questions about the best way to select a party’s presidential nominee and instead focus on empirical questions about South Carolina’s role in the existing system. And ultimately we contend that, in this system, South Carolina has many positive qualities.  Moreover, we consider ourselves lucky to be political scientists who work in an early state. Presidential primaries and caucuses provide rich opportunities to study American politics and participate in important discussions about civic engagement.


Gibbs Knotts is a professor of political science and interim dean of the school of humanities and social sciences at the College of Charleston.  Jordan Ragusa is associate professor of political science and associate chair of the political science department at the College of Charleston.

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