Editor's note: Ferrel Guillory teaches courses in Southern politics and campaign coverage in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He directs the UNC Program on Public Life, and he is also a co-author of the series of State of the South reports produced by MDC Inc., a Durham-based nonprofit research firm.
(CNN) -- For eight consecutive presidential campaigns, from Ronald Reagan's in 1980 to John McCain's in 2008, the winner of the Republican primary in South Carolina went on to win his party's nomination. Not surprisingly, the Republican presidential candidates have begun shaping their appeals to South Carolina voters well before the primary in New Hampshire.
So how will the distinctive political terrain and culture in South Carolina shape the candidates and their messages? And how will the state's tolerance for hardball politics play to a national audience?
Could the tenor of the campaign -- especially if it descends into vicious personal assault -- weaken the Republican brand in a general electorate wanting a serious debate on the nation's economy and future?
South Carolina is perhaps the most solidly Republican state in the South. One way to understand its electorate is to look whom it elects. Gov. Nikki Haley is a product of the tea party movement. Sen. Jim DeMint is known as one of the most right-wing Republicans in the Senate. Sen. Lindsey Graham, while surely a conservative, comes as close to an independent-thinking moderate as South Carolina produces.
The state has five Republicans and one Democrat in the House of Representatives. James Clyburn, whose district spans out from the Columbia metro area into the low country, ranks third in the House Democratic hierarchy. One of the five Republicans is Joe Wilson, who shouted "You lie'' at President Barack Obama from the House floor. The other four are first-term Republicans who are part of the GOP bloc that has pressured Speaker John Boehner to avoid compromise with the White House.
In a recent survey of more than 1,000 likely South Carolina Republican voters by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm based in Raleigh, North Carolina, 79% described themselves as somewhat or very conservative. About three out of 10 voters surveyed aligned themselves with the tea party, and nearly six out of 10 characterized themselves as evangelical.
Recent media reporting from South Carolina suggests that economic issues weigh more heavily on Republican voters in 2012 than the usual hot-button topics such as abortion, gun rights and the Confederate flag. South Carolina has felt severe pain from the recession and its lingering effects. Its unemployment rate, at 9.9% in November, remained well above the national rate of 8.6%.
In many respects, South Carolina shares economic and social structures with the Deep South states of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. More than 18% of South Carolinians live below the poverty line. The 2010 census reported its median household income at $42,000, well below the U.S. median of $50,000. Among its 25- to 34-year-olds, about three in 10 have at least a two-year degree beyond high school, contrasted with the national rate of four in 10. Among African-Americans and Hispanics, only two in 10 young adults have a degree beyond high school.
Often, political discourse in South Carolina seems detached from the social and economic conditions of the state. The state's Republican electorate is highly unlikely to push candidates to discuss the full range of options for addressing poverty, lack of education attainment and similar issues. Democratic stimulus options remain widely unpopular there. Even if the candidates focus more on jobs than social issues, the debate is likely to stay within the tight boundaries of reducing taxes, cutting spending and deficits and relying on free enterprise to induce an economic recovery.
Meanwhile, the state has a high tolerance for assault-your-opponent campaigning. The February 2000 Republican primary became legendary for the smear campaign directed at McCain, who lost to George W. Bush.
In the immediate calculus, South Carolina poses a combination of tests to Mitt Romney. He has an opportunity to show that a lifelong Mormon who has shifted to the political right over the course of his career can appeal to conservative Christians drawn to a politics of purity. He also has to demonstrate a tough hide and demeanor in response to a TV assault already opened by his opponents.
To date, Romney has the advantage of running against a gaggle of opponents, rather than one candidate around whom the right wing has rallied. Instinctively, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry understand Southern Republicanism, and could seriously challenge Romney in South Carolina, though both also carry heavy baggage.
But beyond the politics of the moment lie questions about whether the South Carolina Republican primary could do severe damage to the eventual GOP nominee, whether Romney or one of his challengers. Will the modern, more professional side of South Carolina prevail, or will the state's Republican electorate acquiesce anew to the state's history of down-and-dirty politics?
A corollary issue is whether the Republican Party is "too Southern'' for its own political good -- that is, whether a largely white, rightward-leaning electorate forces candidates to take positions and craft an image that makes the eventual nominee less able to build a successful national coalition.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ferrel Guillory.