Four Republican candidates attended the Faith and Family Presidential Forum at Bob Jones University in South Carolina last Friday. But the local Greenville News was more concerned with those who didn’t bother.
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“Trump, Kasich no-shows at BJU presidential forum,” the headline blared.
It wasn’t an accident. The religious university sits in the heart of South Carolina’s “Upstate” region, one of the most conservative stretches in the nation. Some candidates, like John Kasich, feel better-served by playing to their strengths in other parts of the state.
Here’s your guide to understanding South Carolina’s three major regions, and the voters that live in them.
The South Carolina counties in the northwest are the deepest shade of red.
“The Upstate is home to the conservative’s conservative,” said Dave Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University. “It’s more responsive, say, to the son of a Baptist preacher.”
Enter Sen. Ted Cruz. The son of an evangelical pastor, Cruz is fluent in the language of local voters, which gives him a numerical edge: the small corner of the state accounted for nearly 40 percent of the Republican electorate in 2012.
But while Cruz and Dr. Ben Carson have captured endorsements from the pulpits, Donald Trump continues to electrify those in the pews. He holds a remarkable double digit advantage over Cruz with evangelicals in the state.
While religion plays an important role in the Palmetto State, military service is a near constant as well. The state is home to several active military bases and has one of the highest veterans-per-capita ratios in the country. The famed Citadel is located in Charleston, and a whopping 50 percent of Army recruits receive their basic combat training at Fort Jackson in Columbia.
The Midlands, then, is the place for GOP candidates to make their defense pitches.
“That’s where you’re talking to military families,” said Taylor Mason, a former South Carolina staffer to Carly Fiorina who is not currently affiliated with a campaign. “That’s why Ted Cruz issued an ad about Fort Jackson, making sure military bases don’t get closed down.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, who feels the region plays to his strengths, has attacked Cruz for being inconsistent on military spending.
““When I’m president, we’re rebuilding the U.S. military,” the Florida senator told a South Carolina crowd Wednesday. “And this is not a position that I suddenly discovered 24 hours ago because I realized ‘Oh, I’m in South Carolina, there are a lot of veterans and military people here.’”
The Midlands is also home to some of the poorest stretches in the South, making jobs and poverty major issues.
“There’s a big difference between the Upstate and the Lowcountry,” says Woodard. “Back in the 1940s they had these liquor referendums. The Upstate voted to be dry, and the Lowcountry voted to be wet. And that difference has kind of persisted ever since.”
Of the handful of counties where alcohol sales are legal on Sundays, four of them reside on the Atlantic Coast. Areas like Charleston are split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, and Republicans throughout the region are considered more moderate than their neighbors to the west.
“If you’re Ted Cruz, you need to lock up the Upstate,” said Nse Ekpo, a vice chair in the South Carolina Republican Party who supports Cruz. “But if you’re Jeb Bush or Donald Trump, you want to make sure you also get to Myrtle Beach near the coast.”
Taylor Mason agreed, adding that Rubio and Trump have crossover appeal throughout the state, while Kasich should focus on counties east of the capital.
“There might be an appeal in the coast and the Midlands because he’s seen as a commonsense guy,” Mason said of Kasich.
But it's best not to paint the state's residents with the same brush.
“Here, you need to appeal to all three types of conservatives,” Mason explained. “Evangelicals, defense conservatives, and in the Lowcountry, economic conservatives. That’s why traditionally we have this role – you have to tie together these voters.”