With the recent Democratic presidential candidates’ forum in Rock Hill with Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, South Carolina was ground zero for Democratic presidential politics.
All this commotion caused me to think back on presidential politics in our state, and how it has changed so much over the years. Just how much has it changed and how quickly? Here’s a little political trivia quiz about presidential politics in South Carolina that might surprise you.
Question No. 1: Who was the first Democratic nominee for president to campaign in South Carolina?
Question No. 2: Who was the first Republican nominee for president to win in South Carolina?
Question No. 3: Who was the last Democratic nominee for president to win in South Carolina?
The answers to this little quiz tells us a lot about the rise and fall of the national Democratic party in the Palmetto State.
First, a little history. For those who flunked History 101, our partisan political saga begins with the Civil War. Set aside that we in South Carolina actually started the war at Fort Sumter and that our state’s politicians — most notably John C. Calhoun — were the architects of the political rationale for secession. There is really only one simple fact that you need to know: Lincoln was Republican.
This one simple fact pretty much ensured that no Republican could get elected to any office in the Confederate South for the next 100-plus years. As the Republican Party pretty much disappeared in the South, neither Republican nor Democratic presidential candidates even bothered to show up and ask for our votes. Democrats were sure to get overwhelming majorities and Republicans were relegated to become a political asterisk.
This pretty much froze out two-party politics in the Palmetto State (and thoughout the South) until 1960. That was the beginning of a radical change that moved our state (and the rest of the South) from one-party Democratic states to one-party Republican states — in just four elections, or 16 years.
Thus, the answer to question No. 1: John Kennedy in 1960 was the first Democrat running for president to actually show up and ask for our vote. This week I watched a video of his speech and it was a little jarring to see this young Massachusetts liberal standing on the capitol steps in Columbia speaking (with a Boston accent) to a huge crowd of (mostly) white folks extolling the virtues of John C. Calhoun.
The next milestone in this transition from D to R (and the answer to question No. 2) is 1964. This was the year Sen. Barry Goldwater broke the solid Democratic South and carried South Carolina (as well as Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arizona).
While the country as a whole gave Lyndon Johnson a historic landslide victory with 61 percent of the vote, Goldwater won South Carolina with 59 percent.
The last gasp of the Democratic Party’s dominance in South Carolina (and the answer to question No. 3), was in 1976 with Jimmy Carter’s victory. He carried South Carolina with 56 percent of the vote, the fourth-biggest Democratic margin for Carter of all the 50 states. Despite this big result, it was the end of the line for Palmetto Democrats in presidential elections.
No Democrat running for president has carried South Carolina since 1976. This Republican dominance on the federal level (in both South Carolina and across the South) spread to both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Today, there are a few African-American congressmen in lopsided minority districts, but there are virtually no white Democrats in federal offices in the Deep South.
But, this is not the end of the story for Democrats in the South. Though Republicans in the South have won most every office that is demographically possible for them to win, these same demographics are changing. The pendulum of history continues to swing — and the next swing is back the other way.
The number of minority voters (especially Hispanics), young voters and moderate transplants from outside the region is growing — and thus, things are moving back toward Democrats. Both North Carolina and Virginia have voted for Obama, elected Democrats to the U.S. Senate and a few U.S. House seats.
In one or two election cycles, Texas will reach the tipping point and become Democratic again; Florida and Georgia will not be far behind and then Tennessee will probably follow. With the help of “demographic binoculars,” one can even see South Carolina swinging back as well — in time.
In most all these Southern states, we are now more likely to see Democratic gains first in state offices and then on the federal level.
The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said it best, “The only thing that is constant is change.”
And for some of us, it can’t come too soon.
Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group started by former Gov. Richard Riley. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.