In Defense of South Carolina: Institutions Matter

We all know the story of the 2000 Republican presidential primary in South Carolina.  John McCain won New Hampshire by double digits, leading a massive increase in campaign donations, campaign volunteers and press.  In response, the Bush campaign went negative in South Carolina–using push polls and other means to spread some nasty rumors, including one that McCain had fathered a black child out of wedlock.  Messy stuff for sure.

Christopher Lamb, a colleague of mine at the College of Charleston, writing in yesterday’s Huffington Post, warns Mitt Romney to avoid “going naked to a knife fight.”  This is certainly prescient advice.  In explaining why Mitt Romney should be especially prepared in South Carolina Lamb writes:

To understand politics in South Carolina, one needs to be aware of the quote from the Unionist James Louis Petigru who responded to the state’s decision to secede from the United States in December 1860 by saying, “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.”

As a social scientist, in particular a political scientist, I have an issue with Lamb’s claim. In my mind this quote implies that South Carolina’s politics (particularly it’s primaries) is unusually negative and hyperbolic because it’s people are somehow atypical.  In simple terms, the state’s politics is a function of its 4.7 million citizens.  But while South Carolina is more conservative than most states (and no doubt differs in other ways), I highly doubt its citizenry alone leads to vicious primaries.  In fact, I’m skeptical that the people of South Carolina are even a critical factor in this case.

A political scientist (Lamb is a communications professor)–in particular one approaching this topic from an institutional perspective–might look to other factors.  Specifically, while I think Lamb’s overall point is accurate, what he overlooks in my view is that the primary system itself, and the rules making South Carolina “first in the South,” greatly affect the nature of the state’s primaries.  Because the primary system is an iterated process (rather than a one-shot, 50 state election), political “momentum” is critically important (see this paper by John Aldrich for a formal proof of this dynamic).  Simply put, candidates who win early primaries like Iowa and New Hampshire are likely to receive greater support in subsequent states because of sophisticated or “front runner” voting (see this paper) as well as generate greater campaign donations and support.  This, in turn, improves their chances of winning subsequent primaries.  Because South Carolina is third in this sequence, there is an incentive for opposition candidates to go negative independent of the state’s demographics.

In sum: I don’t think it’s that South Carolina is atypical per se, it’s just the way the primary system is designed and run.

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8 Responses to In Defense of South Carolina: Institutions Matter

  1. JW says:

    Yes that poly-sci explanation may help us understand why candidates go generally negative in South Carolina, but it does not explain why the Republican candidates make so many blatantly racist remarks in South Carolina.

  2. Pingback: Morning Record – Jan. 20 | Palmetto Public Record

  3. “Viscous” primaries? I wouldn’t classify the SC primaries as syrupy.

    Perhaps “vicious” would be more appropriate?

  4. Shannon says:

    So, does new institutionalism assert that, in general, nomination contests with like rules should experience similar outcomes across years? Or is this discussion specific to South Carolina because of its unique position of being third?

  5. Jordan Ragusa says:

    Both, actually. Because South Carolina is third in the primary process, there is an incentive for trailing candidates to “go negative” to undermine the front runner (lest he or she build too much momentum). Thus, on average, we would expect similar effects across time (if everything else were held constant).

  6. Shannon says:

    The “if everything else were held constant” idea is what I struggle with in regards to nominations or elections, in general. So much changes, namely candidates and electoral context, between election years. How does institutionalism deal with this? I would love to hear your thoughts as well as any recommendations you have for literature that would help me wrap my head around this.

    • Joshua Huder says:

      I’ll take a stab at this. “Everything held constant” is less about reality than it is a cognitive exercise to isolate a single effect. Reality is a mess. And as you point out, it has so many moving parts that “holding all else constant” is an injustice to the nuance and change we see from election to election, state to state, etc. But, from an intellectual or statistical stand point, it’s difficult to talk about the effect of a single variable if all other variables are moving as well. By saying “holding all else constant,” you are trying to eliminate the difficulties of talking about reality to emphasize the effect of a single variable on the institutional landscape.

      In general, I think institutionalism accounts for these changes very well. There are a lot of developmental studies that aim to understand the link between the institutional changes and electoral shifts. Some good examples are James (2000), Skowronek (1997), Zelizer (2004), just to name a few. But in general, institutionalists tend to treat elections as exogenous shocks rather than as institutions in their own right. Hope that helps.

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