How to win the South Carolina GOP primary

Breaking down South Carolina's political geography
Breaking down South Carolina's political geography

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Story highlights

  • Gibbs Knotts: For victory on February 20, candidates will have to navigate three key groups of Republican primary voters
  • He says endorsements matter in a state with long history of picking eventual nominee
  • Gov. Nikki Haley's nod to Sen. Marco Rubio a big plus for him, Knotts says

Gibbs Knotts is professor and department chair of political science at the College of Charleston.

(CNN)There's no magic formula to winning the South Carolina GOP primary, but for the best shot at victory February 20, candidates will have to navigate three key groups of Republican primary voters.

They must do this while being mindful of something else: South Carolina Republicans are fiscally and socially conservative and often display a strong distrust of government, particularly the federal government.
Gibbs Knotts
So, first, they need to connect with evangelical Christians.
South Carolina is the buckle of the Bible belt, and according to the 2012 exit polls, evangelicals made up 65% of the state's GOP primary voters. Evangelicals propelled Ted Cruz to victory in Iowa, where he won 34% of the evangelical vote, and I expect him to have the advantage among this group in South Carolina.
Donald Trump and Marco Rubio have also shown an ability to connect with evangelical voters, however, each winning about 21% of the evangelical vote in the 2016 Iowa caucuses.
Second, several of the candidates must appeal to the core group of anti-Washington voters that have long existed in South Carolina and make up a sizable portion of the Republican primary electorate. Two of the state's most famous political figures, John C. Calhoun and Strom Thurmond, embodied this anti-Washington sentiment.
Calhoun argued for state's rights and nullification during the first half of the 19th century, and Thurmond protested civil rights advances, even mounting a third party, so-called "Dixiecrat" campaign for president in 1948. This anti-Washington mantle has been taken up most directly by Trump in 2016, but Cruz is also a candidate who can win with this faction.
Third, some candidates should appeal directly to the pro-establishment wing of the South Carolina Republican Party.
Though the 2016 elections have been a difficult cycle for establishment candidates, the states' GOP voters take considerable pride in backing the eventual Republican nominee, successfully picking the nominee in every contested election from 1980 to 2008.
The only exception in recent memory was in 2012, when South Carolina Republicans supported former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, over the eventual nominee, Mitt Romney. Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Rubio are making appeals directly to this faction of South Carolina's Republican electorate.
But of these three candidates, who has the edge among establishment Republicans? Endorsements provide some clue, and in 2016, both of the state's U.S. senators have made high-profile endorsements.
South Carolina's political odd couple
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One-time presidential candidate Lindsey Graham, South Carolina's senior senator, endorsed Bush on January 15. But Graham's popularity in the state continues to be mixed, with a recent Winthrop Poll indicating that he has just a 53% approval rating.
The state's junior senator, Tim Scott, is much more popular in South Carolina with an approval rating of 76%. Scott endorsed Rubio on February 2 and has appeared with him on the stump and has even made his case for Rubio in a television commercial, noting that Rubio can "inspire our country, unite our party, and win in November."
Perhaps most importantly, the state's most popular political figure, Gov. Nikki Haley, endorsed Rubio on February 17.
This late endorsement from Haley could provide as much as a 4% boost for Rubio. According to one poll, her approval rating is 81%, and she continues to receive praise for her handling of the Walter Scott shooting, the Charleston Church massacre and the state's devastating floods in October 2015. She even gave the Republican response to President Obama's State of the Union address and is frequently mentioned as a potential vice presidential nominee.
I'm certainly not an election forecaster, but a recent CNN/ORC poll indicates that Donald Trump should have a good day on Saturday. The state should also narrow the current field of six candidates and will likely anoint Trump's rival for upcoming contests.
South Carolina's "First in the South" primary will also be a strong barometer for future contests, particularly the Southern states participating in the March 1 Super Tuesday primaries.