COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Shopping at a mall here on Wednesday night, Scott Robertson, a 48-year-old pastor from nearby Lexington, said he just wasn’t that into the South Carolina primary election.
Not yet, at least.
“I just think I’m too busy,” he said. “As it gets closer, I’ll probably pay a lot more attention to it as I hear more about it.”
While the first-in-the-South primary is less than a month away, some South Carolina political observers say voters like Robertson are the norm and won’t get seriously engaged in picking a candidate until voting in the two earlier states begins.
“Frankly, people are still worrying about all the Christmas presents they’re going to have to give,” Republican consultant Chip Felkel said. “South Carolinians will probably start paying attention to it the day after the Iowa caucuses.”
Despite the relative lack of enthusiasm here (a recent NBC/Marist poll found 57% of likely voters did not strongly support a candidate), campaigns have been preparing for the Jan. 21 primary for months. While some have tapped into the state’s traditional grassroots groups and consultants, others are staying relatively under the radar with occasional bursts of activity.
The variety of ground games here underscores this cycle’s uncertainty -- especially given the roller-coaster rise and fall of several candidates. And in a state that has picked every eventual GOP nominee since 1980, some Republicans are wondering whether it’s still necessary to invest in a long ground game here, or simply wait until all eyes are on South Carolina to flood the state.
A few campaigns are organizing the kind of large campaign infrastructure that has helped candidates in the past. For example, Rick Perry -- who has 13 staffers here -- lined up endorsements from big donors and more than 20 state legislators shortly after announcing his presidential bid in Charleston in August. At the same time, he is tapping into the state’s large veteran base and evangelical voters.
Perry’s state chair Katon Dawson, who worked for George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign, said he expects to activate such boots-on-the-ground operations during the “72-hour program,” in which campaigns engage their network of supporters in the final stretch.
“We’re probably not going to have a feel for this vote, in all honesty, until a couple days before. And then the get out the vote program starts working,” said Dawson, a former South Carolina Republican Party chairman.
Perry’s efforts have and will be bolstered by large ad buys in the state’s four major media markets, Greenville, Columbia, Charleston, and Myrtle Beach. The pro-Perry Super PAC Make Us Great Again has already spent $1.8 million in TV advertising here -- the most by far of any campaign.
But Perry’s high-profile supporters and media pushes have not paid off here -- at least so far. He sat at 6% in the latest NBC/Marist poll, reflective of his numbers in other key states.
The traditional route also has not worked for Jon Huntsman, who hired Richard Quinn, John McCain’s former campaign adviser, and racked up early endorsements from high-profile politicians. But the former Utah governor sits at 3% in the NBC/Marist poll.
And while Rick Santorum touts that he’s visited South Carolina the most, he has not made inroads here, getting 2% in the poll. But Santorum did recently announce a long list of county chairmen throughout 41 of the state’s 46 counties.
Felkel said that grassroots coalitions matter less now than they have in previous years -- a dynamic that first appeared in 2002, during then-Rep. Mark Sanford’s first run for office.
“He never had what you would call a grassroots campaign. It was all media,” Felkel said.
Mini-Newts and online headquarters
While Newt Gingrich started small here, his staff here has grown with his poll numbers. His campaign here began with two former American Solutions employees, to which five more were added in November. And there are now 12.
While all other campaigns are based in Columbia, Gingrich’s headquarters are in the Upstate city of Greenville. But he has four other offices throughout the state in North Charleston, Myrtle Beach, Columbia and Bluffton (near Hilton Head).
As his popularity grew, Gingrich quickly pulled together a list of 40 county co-chairs in 26 of the 46 counties, as well as the endorsements of at least two full Tea Party groups (Myrtle Beach and Laurens) and many individual members.
Leslie Gaines, Gingrich’s state co-chair, said his original two staffers (Adam Waldek and Vince Haley) have done Tea Party outreach here for years on behalf of American Solutions, so Gingrich already had a natural base in the state.
“It helps to have mini-Newts” on the ground, Gaines said, adding that Gingrich will be doing a bus tour of the state beginning Jan. 11, the day after the New Hampshire primary.
Michele Bachmann’s campaign has also been consolidating Tea Party support, putting together a 56-member Tea Party coalition with whom senior advisor Wesley Donehue says he communicates through Facebook and emails.
Donehue heads a seven-member staff that operates without a central office, and says he sends marching orders to more than 1,200 supporters every day. On Wednesday, supporters were asked to make phone calls to Iowa, where the Bachmann campaign’s initial fate rests.
Donehue said he seeks to capitalize on Bachmann’s post-Iowa momentum in South Carolina -– something Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 but lost to McCain in South Carolina, failed to do.
“He came out of Iowa with all that momentum and then got into South Carolina, where he should have had a strong game but he had no way to catch that momentum.”
Also looking to capitalize on a strong Iowa showing is Ron Paul, who has almost no presence here, despite a steady stream of large direct mail pieces and a devoted corps of supporters who hold "sign bombs" for him throughout the state.
But the two preceding contests are not always indicative of South Carolina’s outcome. Of the five contested primaries over the last three decades, Palmetto State Republicans have only aligned with Iowa twice, in 1996 (Dole) and 2000 (Bush), and New Hampshire three times, in 1980 (Reagan), 1988 (H.W. Bush) and 2008 (McCain).
“These are the guys who in 1860 decided to fire on Fort Sumter, OK?” joked Clemson politics professor and Republican consultant David Woodard. He added that voters here “like somebody that they think can win,” noting the Christian Coalition-backed Pat Robertson, who won Iowa in 1988 and was expected to win here but lost to George H.W. Bush.
“They take seriously the responsibilities of picking the winner of the primary here for 30 years and they’re a little more in the middle of the bell curve than sometimes the press gives them credit for,” Woodard said.
Perhaps no campaign is betting more on South Carolina taking their role seriously but tuning in later this year than Mitt Romney’s. The former Massachusetts governor, who came in fourth here in 2008, has three staffers and one headquarters in a nondescript building in West Columbia -- away from the other campaign offices across the Congaree River in downtown Columbia.
While volunteers are phone-banking within the headquarters, perhaps a telling sign of Romney’s ground game lies in the experience of David Root, an Air Force veteran who was invited to participate in a Veterans’ Day roundtable with the candidate in November.
While he gave his contact information at the event, Root said he received no follow-up contact from the Romney camp. “That was it,” he said, adding that he was “surprised and disappointed” that the campaign hadn’t reached out to him (although he said he wouldn’t vote for Romney anyway).
But Romney has been giving South Carolina voters incremental tastes of his campaign’s capabilities, holding several high-production events that got major play on local evening news -- one thing the average voter might catch from time to time this early out.
And just recently, the campaign got a big boost when Romney got the endorsement of Gov. Nikki Haley, a national Tea Party darling despite low statewide approval; purchased more than $85,000 in cable ad time; and was received warmly from voters across the state.
“We have a strong ground game in South Carolina. And in the closing weeks before the primary, our team and volunteers will continue to reach out to voters across the state and make the case that Mitt Romney is the best candidate to beat Barack Obama,” Romney spokesman Amanda Hennenberg said in an email.
That saturation is the type of late blitz the Romney campaign could deploy here after New Hampshire if they think it will work this time, unlike in 2008. But with the campaign currently trailing Newt Gingrich by double digits, that might be a gamble, said Felkel.
“The roll of the dice is, can you win [the primary] without a grassroots game? And I think Romney will prove that that may be the case if he’s able to come from behind,” he said.
“Going through the motions”
Grassroots activists aside, the lack of enthusiasm this time around is palpable to Brad Warthen, former editorial page editor at The State newspaper, who characterized campaigns’ presence here as “going through the motions.”
By this time in 2008, Warthen said, several candidates had come to The State for editorial board meetings. But this cycle, only Huntsman has sat with the editorial board so far.
“What I’m accustomed to in the past is by this time everybody would have been pretty excited for months,” Warthen said. “It’s just a weird year.”
But while Warthen and others might characterize this cycle as unusual, the eventual winner of the South Carolina primary will likely tout the state’s perfect record of picking presidents as he or she looks to add one more name to the state’s 30-year roster of nominees.
After all, the winner will likely say, it’s not for nothing that the motto of the South Carolina Republican Party is, “We pick presidents.”