WASHINGTON — Today’s presidential primary in South Carolina opens the Republican balloting in the South, extending a tradition that dates to 1980 in the heart of the nation’s most Republican-friendly region.
Since the party’s primary began in South Carolina, every candidate who has won it has gone on to be the party’s presidential nominee.
For former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a win would solidify his position as the leader in national polls of the Republican race. And South Carolina’s historical influence on the party’s presidential pick has raised the stakes for former House speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who both have said they will reassess their candidacies if they don’t win the contest.
Any registered voter may participate; South Carolina doesn’t register voters by party. Polling places will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Political scientists Karen Kedrowski, of Winthrop University, and David Woodard, of Clemson University, have predicted about 500,000 of the 2.7 million registered voters will participate.
Woodard said that while he had initially anticipated a higher turnout, some voters have been turned off by a race he called “the dirtiest I’ve seen in 25 years, by far.”
Turnout was 445,499 in the 2008 Republican primary, which eventual nominee John McCain, an Arizona senator, won with 33 percent to 30 percent for former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. Romney scaled back his South Carolina operation in the final days of the 2008 campaign and placed fourth, with 15 percent, behind former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson’s 16 percent.
Republican turnout should be higher than in 2008 in part because Democrats aren’t holding a primary to compete for the votes of political independents. President Barack Obama is unopposed for the Democratic nomination. In 2008, Obama won a high-profile Democratic primary that drew 532,151 voters.
Today’s turnout might fall short of the record 573,101 who voted in the 2000 Republican primary, in which then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush defeated McCain en route to winning the nomination and the presidency.
The biggest bloc of Republican votes is in Greenville County, located in the state’s northwest and the source of 59,038 of 445,499 votes in the 2008 primary. Spartanburg County, located directly east of Greenville, cast 30,161 votes in 2008, the fourth-highest total. Voters in this area tend to be motivated by social issues such as opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage; both counties voted for Huckabee four years ago and together will cast about 20 percent of the statewide vote. Gingrich and Rick Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, need to do well there.
“That’s where you’re going to see the Santorum-Gingrich showdown,” Kedrowski said.
Romney is expected to run more strongly in Lexington and Richland Counties, which take in the Columbia capital area and together account for about one-seventh of the vote. Charleston County, a coastal county where Romney finished second to McCain in 2008, casts about 8 percent of the vote.
Romney is “really trying to duplicate the McCain strategy of focusing on the coast and the Columbia area and using that to carry the rest of the state,” Kedrowski said.
Other major sources of votes include Horry County, which takes in Myrtle Beach in the state’s northeastern corner; Anderson County, which abuts Greenville to the west; and York County, which takes in Rock Hill and is in the Charlotte, N.C., media market. In the 2008 primary, McCain won Horry and Huckabee won Anderson and York.
In an exits poll four years ago, 60 percent of the voters in the Republican primary described themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians. Huckabee won that bloc by 43 percent to 27 percent over McCain, with Romney, a Mormon, placing fourth at 11 percent. Among the 40 percent who said they were not born-again or evangelical Christians, McCain beat Huckabee by 43 percent to 14 percent, with Romney taking 20 percent.