S.C. Republicans like to say the state’s first-in-the-South primary is the gold standard for picking Republican nominees, with all but one of the state winners becoming the eventual nominee since 1980. The exception was Newt Gingrich in 2012.
But Beaufort County has its own presidential primary tradition. County voters have favored the eventual nominee five times out of seven elections without a Republican incumbent with voters tending to favor fiscal conservatives and candidates focused on military issues, according to the state's politicos.
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Local voters at times stand out from the rest of the state. In three of the last six GOP primaries without a Republican incumbent, the candidate that won South Carolina failed to win Beaufort County.
The great South Carolina political divide
One reason South Carolina may be so accurate in predicting the Republican nominee is that there are multiple Republican constituencies concentrated in different parts of the state, experts say.
The classic divide categorizes the Upstate voter as more motivated by social issues, while the Lowcountry is dominated by fiscal conservatives, said former Republican political consultant David Woodard, who is now a political science professor at Clemson University.
“The difference is more than geography,” Woodard said. “There’s a different culture, a different background and it occasionally shows up in an election.”
A February 12 presidential primary poll from Opinion Savvy showed that likely Republican voters in the Lowcountry tend to define themselves as “very conservative” less often than voters in the Upstate at 36 percent compared with 48 percent.
The divide in the state can be traced back decades, Woodard said.
“You look at a liquor referendum that went to a vote in 1940, the Upstate voted dry, the Lowcountry voted wet,” Woodard said.
When the state voted on whether to legalize video poker machines in 1994, the Lowcountry voted in support and the Upstate largely voted in opposition, Woodard said.
In presidential politics, the divide can sometimes show itself when candidates appeal to those differences among local voters.
Woodard calls the 2008 primary “a classic example of the divide.”
That year, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was pitted against Arizona Sen. John McCain for control of the Republican race.
Huckabee’s social conservative message translated into 24 county wins concentrated in the Upstate, while Beaufort County and the rest of the Lowcountry heavily favored John McCain, who was considered the more moderate candidate.
“It doesn’t always work out that way,” Woodard said. “But the divide can definitely sway an election.”
Romney loses the state, wins Beaufort County
The only winner of a South Carolina Republican primary who didn’t go on to win the party nomination was former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in 2012. Beaufort County was one of only three counties, however, where former Massachusetts Gov. and eventual party nominee Mitt Romney won the popular vote.
The 2012 win for Gingrich was in part a backlash to Romney, who was viewed as an establishment choice, Scott Huffman, a political science professor and pollster at Winthrop University, argues.
“I think that shows that you have some more traditional Republicans in the Lowcountry,” Huffman said. “I think of South Carolina voters going for Gingrich as the canary in the coal mine showing that conservatives were angry at the establishment. But it seems not to have not to won out in Beaufort County.”
Huffman speculates that one reason Beaufort County voted for Romney might be the large percentage of northerners who have moved to this area but still vote for fiscal moderates favored by Republicans in the Northeast and Midwest.
Another factor may be the high level of wealth in the Lowcountry compared with the rest of the state, Huffman said.
Beaufort County’s median household income is about $12,300 greater than the state average, according to U.S. census data from 2014.
Tom Hatfield, moderator of Hilton Head Island First Monday Republican Lunch Group, said he thinks Beaufort County’s relatively wealthy population was key in helping Romney in 2012.
“Romney was a wealthy entrepreneur and businessman; he was always painted as part of the elite,” Hatfield said. “Other parts of the state didn’t like that about him, but in the Lowcountry I think more people could identify with him.”
The military vote and John McCain
Another force that has defined Beaufort County Republican primary voters are strong local ties to the military.
The presence of both the Marine Recruit Depot Parris Island and the large number of veterans who retire in the area make the military vote an essential part of winning here, Huffman said.
That may be one reason why McCain won the Beaufort County in the 2000 primary over the South Carolina state winner and eventual nominee George W. Bush.
McCain campaigned heavily on his background as a former prisoner of war and put a heavy focus on campaigning in the Lowcountry, former Republican state representative Edie Rogers said.
“He came here months ahead of time. He was going to every legislator to get their support,” Rogers said. “I think he knew this would be one of his best areas.”
Beaufort County doesn’t go for Reagan
The first time a candidate other than the state winner took the county was in 1980 when Ronald Reagan won South Carolina, but former Texas Governor John Connolly won Beaufort County.
Connolly, a former Democrat who served as Secretary of the Navy under John F. Kennedy and switched to the Republican Party after serving as Secretary of the Treasury in the Nixon administration, likely had a strong appeal for Beaufort County voters, Woodard said.
“He had been in the military and was a straight-talking Southern politician,” said Woodard, who wrote a biography of Ronald Reagan.
People here may have also feared Reagan as a new kind of more ideological Republican at the time, Woodard said.
“We forget it now, but at the time a lot of people feared Reagan's conservatism. He was seen as a right-wing radical,” Woodard said. “Moderates didn’t particularly like that, so that may be one reason he didn’t do well in the Lowcountry.”
What about this election?
While past elections may be a guide for to what to expect in the Lowcountry in primaries, the unconventional candidacy of businessman and state front-runner Donald Trump may defy local tradition, Woodard and Huffman said.
“This is an election season with a lot of anger,” Huffman said. “If the anger has spread to Beaufort County, you might see them moving towards a Trump. If they stay with their traditional tendency for the establishment and military candidate, you may see another more traditional candidate do well.”
Beaufort County GOP Primary Winner
S.C. GOP Primary Winner
Incumbent George W. Bush
Incumbent George W. Bush
George W. Bush
Incumbent H.W. Bush
Incumbent H.W. Bush
Incumbent Ronald Reagan
Incumbent Ronald Reagan