The new holy grail for GOP hopefuls

Contributed by Shell Suber

Take a slow, deep cleansing breath and quietly, thoughtfully consider this: A year from now you will be drowning in primary election coverage as a breathless media covers and re-covers a frenzied field of Republican hopefuls jockeying for the right to challenge Barack Obama for the presidency.

Next Christmas campaign operatives will be grasping at every scrap of good news and spinning every modicum of forward momentum in hopes of creating the perception – real or imagined – that public opinion is surging in their candidate’s direction.

Fifty-eight short weeks from now, everyone will be over-analyzing the results of the Iowa caucuses. The New Hampshire primaries will be a week later with South Carolina and Nevada – a newcomer to the early contests calendar – four days after that. Florida will follow in two days with Super Tuesday a week later to finish off the craziest three weeks in the American political cycle. 

But while the reporting, blogging and tweeting will go on for months leading up to Labor Day and the GOP convention in Tampa, history has taught us it will already be over well before voters in the thirteen Super Tuesday states get a chance to step into the booth. In fact, it will likely be over before Florida voters get their say. The race for the Republican nomination in 2012 will likely end, as it has for decades, on a cold February night in South Carolina.

The winner of the South Carolina GOP primary has gone on to be the Republican nominee in every race during the past 30 years. For all the early hype, gallons of ink, and hours of punditry that will be dumped on the Iowa and New Hampshire contests, they don’t have anything close to South Carolina’s batting average. The grand prize is South Carolina.

South Carolina has become so much more accurate a predictor of who will ultimately wear the GOP crown that many political scientists have relegated Iowa and New Hampshire to the equivalent of the NLF’s pre-season and elevated South Carolina to the level of the regular season and first round of playoffs all rolled up into one. Consider that the Indianapolis Colts are 4-20 in the pre-season since 2005 but 65-15 in the regular season over the same stretch. Even better when you add in playoffs. Like the NFL’s pre-season, Iowa and New Hampshire’s can trace their diminishing importance to bazaar results such as wins by Pat Buchanan in ’92 and John McCain in ’00.

Successful nominees have demonstrated an appreciation for the importance of the Palmetto State’s heralded “First in the South” primary. McCain, having seen his chances die a bitter death there in 2000, vowed to win South Carolina eight years later. In 2008 he got in early, locked down key endorsements and organized activists on his way to an unlikely comeback victory and never looked back.

It is also interesting to note that over the last three decades, despite an endless variety of political, international, economic, historical and hysterical forces, the winner of the South Carolina Republican primary has been the candidate who was perceived to have been the frontrunner one year earlier. As wildly unpredictable as some of those primary races became in the year that followed, voters ended up picking the candidate who was seen as “most likely to succeed” twelve months earlier. But in each of those contests, the frontrunner had been – at this point – obvious. George H. W. Bush in ’88 and ’92, Bob Dole in 96’, George W. Bush in ’00 and McCain in ’08 were all widely acknowledged as the man to beat a year before the primaries began. Each was challenged – some more than others – but won in the end.

This cycle, however, is so far notable for its lack of a clear frontrunner. While polls indicate Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin have slightly stronger appeal than other candidates, their numbers are nowhere close to those enjoyed by previous frontrunners at this point in their respective cycles.

The race for the Grand Prize – South Carolina – remains wide open for the first time in decades.

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One Comment to “The new holy grail for GOP hopefuls”

  1. Yep – SC is the Kingmaker, has been and will be . . . just ask Pat Buchanan, John Connally, and Paul Tsongas.

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