Originally created 11/21/02

Research uncovers GOP gains in county



AIKEN - Aiken County appears to be growing even more Republican.

The GOP-leaning county cast more votes this year for the party's candidates than in the recent past, according to general election exit polling by students at the University of South Carolina Aiken.

The results of the study were released Tuesday.

Dr. Robert Botsch, the professor of the political science research methods class that conducted the study, said the Republican increases were consistent with a national voting trend and could be temporary.

He said the Republicans succeeded because they rallied around one another and the president, playing on patriotic emotions to get voters to the polls.

"I think turnout played some role in it," Dr. Botsch said. "The president and the candidates gave Republicans more reasons to come to polls than the Democrats did.

"Nationally, President Bush succeeded in turning the election on national security issues, where the president always has a huge advantage."

In the poll, about 57 percent of voters identified themselves as Republican. That compares with 52 percent in the previous nonpresidential election, in 1998.

"Not only were Democrats badly outnumbered, they also were less loyal to the candidates of their party," the study's authors said. "While Republican identifiers voted with their party's candidates near the top of the ticket more than 90 percent of the time, Democratic identifiers averaged voting for their candidates in the 80-85 percent range."

The study also pointed out that "even unknown and under-funded Republican state superintendent of education candidate Dan Hitgen carried the county with 51 percent of the vote."

The USC Aiken research found that voters cast ballots for Republicans even when they disagreed heavily with the candidate's ideas.

For example, about 80 percent of Aiken County voters disagreed with Gov.-elect Mark Sanford's proposal of appointing, rather than electing by popular vote, a number of constitutional officers. Also, about 52 percent did not favor the 5-cent gasoline tax he proposed to eventually eliminate the state income tax. Thirty-five percent approved it, and 13 percent were undecided.

Dr. Botsch said he thinks Mr. Sanford won in spite of, not because of, his stand on the issues.

Voters in the study were chosen from 10 precincts that have historically represented the countywide vote. The margin of error was 4 percent.

A phone survey to be conducted next year by Dr. Botsch's students will poll residents countywide to better track party allegiances and other trends.

Reach Eric Williamson at (803) 279-6895 or eric.williamson@augustachronicle.com.