When leaders of the Republican Party look at an electoral map and decide which states are firmly are in their column, South Carolina is one of the first states chosen.
And rightfully so.
The Palmetto State hasn’t voted for a Democrat in the presidential race since 1976, when it voted for Gov. Jimmy Carter of neighboring Georgia.
Nevertheless, a new poll from NBC/Marist suggests GOP leaders may want to think twice before they take South Carolina for granted.
With much of the media’s attention on how durable Newt Gingrich is as a frontrunner, the poll of South Carolina voters, which was released over the weekend, shows President Obama leading Gingrich by four percentage points (46-42), Mitt Romney by three (45-42) and Ron Paul by ten (47-37).
The fact that Obama is even within shouting distance in a state he lost by nine points in 2008 — at the height of his popularity — indicates something may be amiss in Republicans’ certainty that they will defeat the president in 2012.
South Carolina Republicans reacted as though the thing that was most amiss was the poll itself, immediately denouncing its credibility. (See the full report in a PDF in the top right of this article.)
Katon Dawson, former state GOP chair and current state chair for Rick Perry’s campaign, said: “That poll is incorrect. No way, no how Barack Obama is leading in South Carolina.”
The poll, which surveyed 2,107 registered voters, between Dec. 4-6 has a margin of error of plus-minus 2.1 percentage points. The poll put Gingrich up 42-34 over Romney for the GOP nomination among likely Jan. 21 primary voters.
The results of the poll show that Obama is actually more popular in South Carolina than he is in many Democratic states, a fact that the executive director of the South Carolina GOP Matt Moore used to question the veracity of the survey in a Tuesday email blast to media and supporters.
“Do you honestly think Barack Obama is massively more popular in South Carolina than he is nationwide?” Moore asked.
Aside from the fact that none of the top three candidates for the presidential nomination is ahead of Obama in one of the reddest states in the country, the poll contains several pieces of data that must be disconcerting for the GOP.
First, 68 percent of those polled identified themselves as conservatives, which means that, depending on who he’s paired against, Obama is getting between 13-15 percent of the vote from those who identify themselves as the "right."
Also, only 28 percent of voters said they supported the Tea Party, which would seem to fly in the face of how much attention the group is paid by candidates and by the party itself.
Additionally, only 20 percent said the ability to beat Obama is the most-important quality for a Republican presidential candidate, the third-most popular choice behind “shares my values” and “closest to me on the issues.”
This figure would no doubt make Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell unhappy, as he famously declared that defeating Obama was his top priority.
What must be especially frustrating to Republicans is that the amount of people who say they approve of the job Obama is doing is eclipsed by the number of people who say they would vote for him.
Meaning, that there are people within the Republican Party who say they would still vote for Obama even though they don’t think he’s doing a good job. That does not say much for the Republican presidential field.
South Carolina Democratic consultant Tyler Jones was, as one might expect, delighted with the poll numbers. He was not surprised either.
“In the last four years the Republican Party has adopted a ‘no moderates allowed’ policy," Jones said. "It’s starting to backfire on them even in South Carolina.”
Jones believes that the poll numbers reflect voters’ desire for a divided government, with the president from one party and the Congress from the other. Except they’ve grown frustrated with the Republican-led House.
“They’re obstructionist and they’re led by the Tea Party,” Jones said. “It’s bad for the country.”
But, Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, cautioned Obama supporters not to start booking hotel rooms for the inaugural just yet.
“This is not the best group of presidential candidates the Republicans have ever had, but that said, everything we’ve seen up to now indicates it’s going to be a close election next year,” Kondik said.
“If we saw three or four polls that showed Obama ahead in South Carolina then we might say we have a trend, but this is just one poll. Still, it was pretty eye-opening.”
And if South Carolina is in play, anything is possible.
“If South Carolina is in play then this could be like a 1984 when the President won 49 states,” Jones said, which means that Gingrich may start resembling Walter Mondale more than he ever could have imagined.