Heading into the South Carolina primary, there will be a lot of talk about how the state has chosen the Republican nominee in every election since 1980 by rallying around the establishment candidates and quashing the insurgents. What’s lost in this analysis, however, is the fact that in that in all five of the contested primaries since 1980, the establishment candidate won decisively and garnered a large percentage of the overall vote. This trend is unlikely to continue this year, given the fractured nature of the GOP field.
Here’s a list of the South Carolina winners since 1980, with their percentage of the vote. Notice that the lowest total was in 1996, when Bob Dole captured 45 percent (he still trounced Pat Buchanan, who received just 29 percent):
1980 Ronald Reagan 55%
1988 George Bush 49%
1992 George Bush 67%
1996 Bob Dole 45%
2000 George W. Bush 53%
It is unlikely that any GOP candidate in 2008 will get anywhere near Dole’s 45 percent, and a double-digit victory seems unlikely. In the pre-Michigan RCP average, John McCain has a narrow edge over Mike Huckabee, 25.8 to 23.3.
This doesn’t mean that South Carolina won’t prove very important. A win there could cement McCain as the frontrunner, boost a Romney comeback narrative, make Huckabee viable heading into Feb. 5, and determine whether Fred rejoins the top tier. But we should caution against assuming that the past will be prologue as far as the predictive value of South Carolina, because no candidate is likely to emerge with anything close to a decisive victory.
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