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South Carolina shows Trump and Biden have two very different Southern strategies

Issues of race and immigration are foremost on the minds of South Carolinians, as they are for Americans overall. 

UPDATE (Feb. 24, 2024 7:13 p.m. E.T.): Donald Trump has won the South Carolina primary, NBC News projects, beating Nikki Haley and further cementing his status as the presumptive GOP presidential nominee.

Polls indicate that President Donald Trump is very likely to win South Carolina’s Republican presidential primary over his challenger, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, by a wide margin — possibly 30 percentage points or more. On the Democratic side earlier this month, President Joe Biden won a whopping 96% of the vote in his party’s first official primary. The ways Trump and Biden have maintained their strong positions in the state suggest the Southern strategies each will deploy in the general election.

In their insightful book “The Long Southern Strategy,” Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields trace the roots of Republicans’ “Southern Strategy” back to Richard Nixon’s 1968 pushback against the Civil Rights Movement. But Maxwell and Shields also conclude GOP candidates made a “series of decisions” — not just appeals to “white racial angst” — to spur a realignment and ensure the Deep South moved firmly into the Republican electoral column.

Biden feels he owes Black voters a debt for reviving his initially flagging 2020 primary bid

True, the GOP capitalized on race — with its stoking of white racial anxieties over affirmative action and challenges to other civil rights measures. But religion and anti-feminism were also core parts of its strategy. Inversely, Democratic candidates had their own strategy — they tried to counterbalance Republicans’ growing dominance in the region by attempting (among other strategies) to mobilize women of color, especially Black women, in significant numbers.

Issues of race and immigration are foremost on the minds of South Carolinians, as they are for Americans overall. Trump has never strayed far from the anti-immigrant, dog whistle rhetoric he used in his first presidential bid announcement in 2015. And research suggests his rhetoric significantly attracted white racial conservatives, especially in the South. Just recently, when campaigning in Conway, South Carolina, Trump bragged about defeating the recent border deal in Congress by leaning on congressional Republicans. He declared that the crisis on the Southern border means “we are a nation who is collapsing into a cesspool of ruin.” Trump sees his anti-immigrant populism as mobilizing his base, and it has worked to the point that Haley has struggled despite being the state’s governor for six years.

As for the current president, Biden could easily have expected incumbency to carry him to victory. But in 2022, Biden insisted that South Carolina should be the party’s first official primary. It was a recognition that he feels he owes Black voters a debt for reviving his initially flagging 2020 primary bid, with a primary win that catapulted his campaign to victory across the Deep South. In numerous pre-primary appearances in late January and early February, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris made explicit appeals to South Carolina’s Black voters. The president denounced “white supremacy” from the pulpit of Charleston’s historic Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the site of a 2015 racist massacre of nine Black parishioners. But a minuscule turnout in this month’s primary (about 4%) may not fend off major concerns that some Black voters have cooled on supporting Biden’s re-election bid.

No one can win South Carolina without tapping into religious groups and voters. Christian evangelicals comprise a dominant segment of the GOP and have provided occasional upset victories in GOP primaries (e.g., Newt Gingrich in 2012) and Black religious leaders and parishioners have been indispensable to the victories of Democratic primary candidates (e.g., Jesse Jackson in 1988). These groups will be key targets nationally as well. Trump actively courted conservative Black pastors in the previous presidential election and may do so again to increase his margins with Black voters at least minimally, while the Biden campaign is very likely to continue its assertive outreach to Black congregations on the Democratic side.

The state’s attitudes on gender issues also hint at the two campaign’s national strategies. In a spring 2023 poll from Winthrop University, a plurality of South Carolinians (43%) opposed a six-week abortion ban, and both strong majorities of Republicans and Democrats supported abortion being legal if it threatens the life of the mother or is the result of rape. That fits with the many election losses the GOP has suffered, even in conservative states, over the issue of abortion since the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision. As a result, the Trump campaign continues to downplay the party’s support of strong anti-abortion state laws, while the Biden campaign will continue to press the Democratic electoral advantage on abortion by deploying Harris and other women as spokespeople.

In the short term, the end of the South Carolina leg of this primary season may also be the end (or at least the narrowing) of Haley’s hopes to be a viable “alternative” to Trump. In the long term, the issues and strategies that have animated Trump and Biden’s South Carolina campaigns provide insight into how they’ll approach the rest of this election year.