South Carolinians Weigh Priorities as Primary Nears
Andy McMillan for The New York Times
Rhoetta and Pete Bradley at work in Edisto Grocery, a gas station and store in rural South Carolina.
By KIM SEVERSON
Published: January 11, 2012
NORTH, S.C. — The grim just gets grimmer here at the Edisto Grocery, where all day long people with not enough work come to eat $2.25 fried bologna sandwiches, pick up some horse feed and complain about the price of diesel.
“Jobs are all I hear about every day. Where are the jobs?” said Pete Bradley, who owns the small store and gas station here in Orangeburg County, where unemployment is 15.6 percent and the median income is $32,699.
After stops in Iowa and New Hampshire, states that are doing relatively well economically, the Republican presidential race is coming for the first time to a state that is struggling mightily through the downturn and, like much of the country, has distinct pockets of poverty and prosperity.
Just a 45-minute drive from the Edisto Grocery toward the capital city of Columbia, South Carolina looks quite different. Here, in Lexington County where Gov. Nikki Haley lives, unemployment is 7 percent and the median income is $51,523. New companies, lured to South Carolina by generous tax incentives and the state’s right-to-work policies, are hailed as heroes.
Amazon’s sprawling new distribution center could net as many as 2,000 jobs. The Nephron Pharmaceuticals Corporation, a maker of respiratory medicine, will break ground in the same industrial park this month and bring about 700 jobs. Continental Tire plans to invest $500 million to build a plant in nearby Sumter County.
Building on those potential new jobs, Ms. Haley delivered a message of promised prosperity last week as she traveled to the wealthy coastal communities of Charleston and Myrtle Beach with the presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, trying to give him an edge in the Jan. 21 Republican primary.
Mr. Romney hopes that message will secure South Carolina and, with it, the nomination. For the last 32 years, whoever has won in South Carolina has become the Republican candidate for president.
As it does in much of the rest of the country, the economic gap looms large in this state. Since 2007, South Carolina has lost 78,000 jobs, many of them in construction. The question is whether economics will overshadow the reliable platform of smaller government and deep social conservatism important especially to poor and middle-class white Republican voters in South Carolina.
Although it is a relatively small state — it ranks 24th in population and 40th in size — South Carolina is a place of stark contrasts between the haves and the have nots, and one in which the political landscape can be brutal and difficult to anticipate.
Three bands of wealth run across the state. Fiscally conservative but less socially conservative retirees populate the coast. To the northwest, along the Interstate 85 corridor toward Charlotte, N.C., Spartanburg’s BMW plant and other manufacturers offer solid jobs for a region with deeply felt conservative views on social issues and Christian institutions like Bob Jones University.
In the center of the state sits the capital, Columbia, where a recent burst of new business and a state government dominated by a Republican majority and a governor who rode to office on a wave of Tea Party support help define the political playing field.
The Republican primary will probably be a study in the balance between social conservatism and the economy, many here believe. And although issues of black-white relations remain an undercurrent in the state where the Civil War began, courting black voters is not much of a factor for Republicans.
“Blacks, whether they are rich or poor or middle class, largely vote Democrat,” said Scott Buchanan, executive director of the Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics. “Poor whites tend to vote Republican.”
Pamela Barksdale, an African-American and an unemployed former BMW worker who lives in a part of northeast South Carolina that was devastated by the collapse of the textile industry, said neither she nor any other black person she knew would ever vote for a Republican.
“Do you think I want to choke myself to death?” she said.
In South Carolina, Mr. Buchanan said, the Republicans are the party of conservative social issues and limited taxes.
As a result, many Republican candidates here are trying to position themselves as the true social conservative while being mindful of the importance of promising economic recovery.
Mr. Romney, perhaps more than any other candidate, is pushing the economy as a campaign theme. Ms. Haley is his echo chamber. Certainly, she said in an interview by phone while on the road with Mr. Romney in New Hampshire, Republican voters in South Carolina want a candidate who believes marriage should be only between a man and a woman and abortion should be outlawed.
But, she said, the state is not as narrow as people think.
“This is the South Carolina that elected a 38-year-old Indian female,” she said. “The No. 1 focus is jobs, spending and the economy.”
How much Ms. Haley’s support for Mr. Romney factors into the race will be closely watched. Although some here applaud her nearly singular focus on sharply reducing government spending and lowering the state’s unemployment rate, which now sits at 9.9 percent, she is not broadly popular.
A December poll by Winthrop University showed only a 35 percent approval rating among all registered voters, lower than that of President Obama, who had a 45 percent rating. Among Republicans, her approval rating was 53 percent.
The state may also be, in the coming years, something of a national study on the effects of deep cuts in government spending for education and social programs.
“We’ve all seen our state budgets erode unmercifully,” said Jeffery S. Allen, interim director of the Strom Thurmond Institute of Government and Public Affairs, which is based at Clemson University. “Lots and lots of people desperately need the help of government to survive. The big question we’re looking at for the future of the state is: are things sustainable at the level to which they have been cut?”
That will probably be writ large in towns like Laurens, where the economy has been devastated first by the collapse of the textile industry and then by the recession. Conversations about the presidential election do not engage people as much as the price of a state lottery ticket, which will double to $2 on Sunday.
Farther south, in Orangeburg County, the outcome of the Republican primary does not seem to matter much, either. It is a hand-to-mouth existence for many, with little hope that a new president would change their lives.
“People are too tired to care,” said Tina Sullivan, 47, who manages three bars in Orangeburg. “If they have any money, they’ll come spend it drinking because they are so depressed.”
Randy Shumpert, who makes a living drilling water wells in nearby Neeses, wants a true social conservative in office. And he also wants more work. But he does not see anyone who appeals to him.
“I plan to vote, but it’s just terrible what we have to vote for,” he said.
To Mr. Shumpert and others at the Edisto Grocery, including one Democrat who happened to wander in and joked that he was the only one in the county who was not black or a woman, no one feels a part of the national race that is descending on the state.
“These people don’t care about us,” Mr. Shumpert said. “We’re the little people.”
- South Carolina Voters Weigh Priorities (nytimes.com)
- Keller @ Large: If Romney Wins South Carolina, It’s Over (boston.cbslocal.com)
- ‘Battle Royale’ Begins For South Carolina Voters (npr.org)
- Minefields Await (huffingtonpost.com)
- South Carolina Voters Overwhelming Disagree With Romney That Corporations Are People (thinkprogress.org)
- Newt Gingrich New Hampshire Primary Results 2012: Candidate Says He’s Headed To South Carolina (huffingtonpost.com)
- Candidates Brush New Hampshire Aside As They Move Onto South Carolina (theamericanteaman.com)
- New Hampshire Exit Poll Shows Mitt Romney’s Strength There, Potential In South Carolina (huffingtonpost.com)
- Partisan feud escalates over voter ID laws in South Carolina, other states (csmonitor.com)
- Anti-Immigration Group Makes South Carolina Ad Buy (huffingtonpost.com)