GREENVILLE, S.C. — South Carolina’s Christian conservatives, personified by Bob Jones University presidents and alums, have made and broken presidential campaigns.
GOP candidates have for decades turned to the right to woo them after coming out of relatively moderate New Hampshire, and no Republican since 1980 has become the nominee without winning South Carolina and its Bible-driven voters for whom a solid stance against abortion, gay rights and other social issues was paramount.
This year, the economy has changed the pecking order.
Evangelicals and the social issues crowd still matter – and Republican candidates are all but certain to air their positions on conservatives’ concerns during a debate in Spartanburg, S.C., today. But that long-time pivotal constituency, like much of the country, is far more concerned about paychecks and food on the table. Meanwhile, the role played by the conservative Christian Bob Jones University and its leaders is waning.
Talk to voters shopping for candidates and they’re looking for anything but talk about abortion or same-sex marriages.
Bryan McLeod, a retired real estate agent from Moore, doesn’t support gay rights but said he’s more concerned about people having jobs, the national debt and the nation’s borders being secure. Abortion and gay marriage? They’re secondary, said McLeod, 66, and if a candidate is talking up those issues, “it seems like he’s avoiding the real problems.”
Gail Randall, a 54-year-old computer programmer in Greenville, said “it’s all about the economy this year, I think, and job creation.” And social issues? “I don’t think they are as important this year, just because of the trying times we’re having right now economically.”
In a Winthrop University poll in September, more than 62 percent of Republican voters said the economy and jobs top their concerns.
In the South Carolina Federation of Republican Women’s straw poll of its 110 activists at the end of October, more than 40 said the economy and jobs were the issue for candidates to deal with. Social issues trailed at a distant fifth.
It’s a clear signal, said LaDonna Ryggs, a federation board member who runs the Spartanburg County GOP and worked at Bob Jones until September. “You’re going to vote your pocketbook.”