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Despite protecting its early state status, Republicans question S.C.'s significance

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- For more than 30 years, South Carolina’s political calling card was its perfect record of voting for the eventual Republican presidential nominee in its first-in-the-South primary – so much so that the state’s Republican Party slogan was “We Pick Presidents.”

Until, in 2012, it didn’t.

Newt Gingrich’s victory, which broke the Palmetto State’s streak that began in 1980, has national Republicans saying South Carolina is no longer an indicator of the eventual winner – and perhaps its spotless tally up until last year was more of a happy coincidence than anything else.

“There’s a little of ‘wet streets cause rain’ thinking,” said GOP consultant Mike Murphy of the state’s marketing of its perfect record.

Murphy added that even if a candidate doesn’t win South Carolina’s primary, the perception that he exceeded expectations there – plus a win in one of the earlier two states, Iowa or New Hampshire – can give the candidate a boost for the rest of the primary stretch.

“In the first three, if you’ve won at least one of them, but done well in perceptions in the other two, and you have the most firepower in Florida,” meaning enough money to play in the state’s expensive media markets, “you’re in pretty good shape,” Murphy said.

That’s what happened with Mitt Romney, the eventual 2012 GOP nominee, said a longtime consultant who advised the former Massachusetts’ governor’s 2008 and 2012 bids.

After spending a lot of time and money in the state in 2008, Romney’s distant third that year was “tough to spin as anything other than a big loss,” the consultant said. But in 2012 they “navigated a second-place finish much better, since we were careful not to raise expectations of a win in South Carolina, even when polls showed him in a strong position.”

For this consultant, perception mattered more than victory in South Carolina – but not so, he added, when it came to the following primary state – Florida. The Sunshine State is bigger, has a wider diversity of Republican voters, and much-pricier media markets.

“Florida, I believe, figures more prominently in the nomination calculation,” the consultant said, “since it’s more of a microcosm and you need big-time resources and an organization to survive the fight there.”

That doesn’t, of course, mean you can ignore the state entirely. Take Rudy Giuliani in 2008, who focused exclusively on Florida – without playing in the early three -- to his detriment.

Gingrich’s South Carolina win meant he was able to fight another day against the more well-heeled Romney campaign. But, Murphy said, “He couldn’t compete with Romney’s money in Florida.”

Romney went on to win Florida 46%-32% over Gingrich.

Even as national consultants say the state is no longer essential, activists and consultants on the ground in South Carolina will not cede an inch of their state’s importance in the presidential selection process.

“Ours is really the first state where fiscal, social, and military-focused Republicans are found together,” South Carolina GOP chairman Matt Moore wrote in an email. “If you can win here, you can win anywhere.”

Deane Browne, a former Vice Chair of the Spartanburg County Republican party, added, “It’s just as important as Iowa. It’s a small state, you don’t have to travel as much or spend as much money to campaign here.” That’s a far cry from, “We Pick Presidents,” however. Iowa has only picked two of the last six eventual Republican nominees in competitive primaries.

Many Republicans here believe Gingrich’s victory was borne more out of an important media win a few days before the vote than it was a grassroots, retail-politics approach.

One of the biggest moments before the Jan. 21st primary was when CNN’s John King made his first question of the night about Gingrich’s second wife, who had recently criticized him for his treatment of her during their marriage. It allowed Gingrich to launch into one of his – and his supporters’ – favorite tirades: media criticism. 

“I think the destructive vicious negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country... I’m appalled you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that,” he said as the crowd erupted in cheers.

“John King pretty much just threw him an easy pitch and he knocked it out of the park,” Thomas Dimsdale, a Spartanburg member of the state Republican Liberty Caucus, a libertarian-leaning group, said.

Moore, the SC GOP chairman, seemed to agree, although he suggested the Gingrich path to victory was an anomaly: “Speaker Gingrich rode a huge wave following two nationally-televised debates in the final week. That’s unlikely to happen again,” he said.

But not all South Carolinians have come to the same conclusion after the 2012 primary autopsy. Some said Gingrich won because he campaigned in the state more frequently than others, suggesting voters here are, in fact, more responsive to personal interaction than a solitary TV moment.

“You don't have to go to dinner with everybody, but you gotta show up,” Walter Whetsell, a GOP consultant who worked for Rick Perry and now counts Lindsey Graham’s super PAC, as well as several of South Carolina’s all-Republican Congressional delegation, among his clients, said.

“It’s a very grassroots state. People like to get to know their candidates,” said Ruth Sherlock, who was one of Gingrich’s Palmetto State consultants.

Murphy suggested that South Carolina’s insistence that candidates have to spend a lot of time physically in the state is wishful thinking – motivated more by the business of politics than the reality, as campaigns mean money for consultants, TV stations and other vendors who keep the domino effect going every four years.

“It’s a business to keep,” Murphy said. “These states are protecting an economic vision.”

South Carolina will still likely play an important role for the foreseeable future. Plenty of potential 2016 candidates, from Ted Cruz to Rand Paul to Rick Perry, and others, have already made the trek to the Palmetto State.

The Republican National Committee is practically guaranteeing that -- at least for this next cycle -- as it looks into even tougher ways to sanction those other states that look to jump ahead and go early. 

But electoral technology is progressing in such a way that images of candidates trudging through the Iowa snow or gobbling up Carolina grits may soon represent a bygone era, Murphy warned.

“One day we’ll all vote on the Internet,” he said, “and none of this will mean anything.”