Where are the Candidates?
Are top-tier candidates taking a pass on the Upstate?
Three months from today South Carolina will hold the “First in the South “ primary. With voting now scheduled to take place in less than 100 days one might expect the Upstate to be awash with political visits. But that has not been the case. In fact, quite the opposite is true, as the political calendar has been notable for its dearth of events. As numerous veterans of past presidential races have told Patch, the number of public events in the region has not been on par with previous cycles. Specifically, the top tier candidates have been noticeable in their absence.
- Frontrunner Mitt Romney has not visited the Upstate in several months. He has visited Columbia and Charleston, but the events were staged for the media and presented as opportunities to speak on policy or receive an endorsement. That has not been the case in New Hampshire and Iowa, states where Romney has spent a great deal of time. Barring a scandal of some kind, Romney is expected to win in New Hampshire and he is polling well in Iowa, where he was once thought to be a long shot due to the number of Christian voters who were thought to be turned off by his Mormonism. Romney was second in the most recent South Carolina poll.
- Rick Perry has not visited the Upstate since the weekend he announced his candidacy. The Texas governor dazzled voters here and still has plenty of support, a contrast to his standing elsewhere. Once the frontrunner, he has fallen behind Romney in almost every poll taken across the country and trails Herman Cain in most others. Perry’s wife Anita made a high-profile visit to the area last week.
- Businessman Herman Cain cancelled two visits to the Upstate two weeks ago without much explanation. But Cain has appeared here several times, including visits to Greenville and Simpsonville. Given his rise in the polls recently and that he is based out of nearby Atlanta, Cain is expected to make several trips to this part of the state.
- Ron Paul has not appeared at a campaign event since the summer, but he did take part in the Jim DeMint Freedom Forum on Labor Day.
- Like Perry, Michele Bachmann started off strongly and seemed to be buoyed by the backing she was receiving in the Palmetto State. She visited in June and shortly after she won the Iowa straw poll in August. Since then, the Minnesota congresswoman has fallen in the polls. Her drop has been attributed to the entry of Perry into the race and to her inability to expand her message beyond a critique of the Obama administration. Her visits to the Upstate drew enthusiastic crowds, but Bachmann appears to be focusing on Iowa, the state which is believed to be her best chance of success.
- Newt Gingrich has not visited the Upstate since the summer, but has appeared in Columbia and Charleston on multiple occasions.
- The candidate who has clearly visited the Upstate the most has been Rick Santorum. As one longtime political-watcher said, “Santorum could probably qualify for dual residency.” Unfortunately for the former Pennsylvania senator, that hasn’t helped him much in the polls.
- Jon Huntsman visited the Upstate once, making two stops and picking up what were, at the time, thought to be key endorsements from Henry McMaster and the Campbell family. But, Huntsman has not returned to the region and last month his state director told Patch that the campaign would be putting its emphasis in the Lowcountry, as it is deemed to be less conservative. Now, it appears Huntsman appears to be committed to challenging Romney in New Hampshire, and to doing well in Florida, where his campaign is headquartered.
The absence of candidates, top-tier or otherwise, has financial ramifications. Through September 30, the presidential campaigns had spent $721,000 in South Carolina, while they spent $2.6 million Iowa and $4.6 million in New Hampshire.
Although there was general agreement among local Republicans that the number of visits from candidates, particularly the frontrunners, were fewer compared to 2008, there was little consensus about the cause of the change.
Taft Matney of TM Public Relations & Governmental Affairs believes that the campaigns have been scared off by possible legal action at the county level. “(Presidential campaigns) have been a little nervous to come here, and understandably so,” Matney said. “The threat to opt-out by some counties has already cost the state visits by presidential candidates. That means those same counties have also cost the state money.”
Several Republicans Patch spoke to agreed with Matney, but some also thought that Gov. Nikki Haley’s growing influence on the national stage has made her endorsement a coveted one and therefore candidates are spending more time in Columbia and less in the Upstate.
Other, more moderate members of the GOP suggested that the area has become so conservative that centrist candidates like Romney and Huntsman won’t even bother campaigning here.
Spartanburg GOP Chair LaDonna Ryggs thinks the schedule has hurt South Carolina. “Two major candidates, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, entered the race fairly late in the process and now they’re trying to see as many voters as possible,” Ryggs said. Ryggs also believes the fact that the primary date has been moved up has been detrimental and that candidates may only get one or two visits to a particular area, whether it’s here or somewhere else.
Rick Beltram, who preceded Ryggs as Spartanburg Chair, dismissed scheduling as the culprit and placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of party leadership. He said party leaders have done a poor job organizing events and generating media coverage, pointing to the recent cancellation by the Cain campaign and to low voter turnout for visits to Spartanburg by Ann Romney and Anita Perry.
Beltram acknowledged that the candidates themselves bear some of the responsibility for event planning, but promotion is in the hands of local leaders. “The passion about the race is greater than it was in ’08,” Beltram said. “And to not capitalize on that enthusiasm is a big mistake.”
“There is a danger that the winner of the primary won’t reflect party leadership,” Beltram said, implying that for the first time since 1980, the winner of the South Carolina primary won’t also be the nominee.
Beltram was joined in his dismay by June Bond, an activist from Spartanburg. “It is up to local leadership to engage people in the process and the only way to do that is to get candidates here in the flesh,” Bond said.
Bond noted the prevalence of industry—and therefore financial resources—in the Upstate. But Bond also emphasized the importance of having as many free events as possible, a responsibility she placed with county leaders. “That is how voters’ cynicism is eroded.”
What combination of the aforementioned factors is keeping candidates away is ultimately hard to say. But, the other matter observers can agree on—aside from the candidates’ absence—is that they ultimately will be here.
“They ignore the Upstate at their own peril,” said State Rep. Garry Smith (R-27) of the candidates. “40 percent of the voters are in this area.”
Longtime consultant Chip Felkel concurred: “They’ll be here.”
Which could mean that what has been a trickle of candidates up to now will turn into a flood in the weeks prior to January 21.