Lies, damn lies, and political statistics

Apparently, we’re going to hear a factoid about South Carolina from now until its presidential primary on January 28 — that South Carolina knows how to pick a winner when it comes to Republicans. That, allegedly, is why Republicans are schmoozing up the state.

NPR’s Debbie Elliott passed the nugget along today in her piece about presidential politicking in the state.

South Carolina’s “first in the South” primary has a track record. The state has picked the eventual Republican nominee in every race since Ronald Reagan in 1980.

We’ll spot you Reagan, South Carolina, but beyond that, how big of a deal is this fact? Not very.

Consider two realities. Incumbent presidents are rarely tested within their own party and primaries are virtually irrelevant. Aside from Reagan’s victory in 1980 (Strom Thurmond backed Reagan so the election was over early), that takes 1984, 1992 (George Bush was not seriously challenged by Pat Buchanan), and 2004 (the race was uncontested). ‘

That takes 4 primary results off the board.

In 1988, Reagan’s VP defeated Bob Dole in South Carolina. A sitting VP clearly enjoys an advantage.

In 2000, George W. Bush beat John McCain, but it took a dirty tricks campaign to do so. Before the election, a phony poll was created to call voters and ask them, “Would you be more or less likely to vote for John McCain…if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?”

That leaves 1996 (Bob Dole over Pat Buchanan) and 2008 (John McCain over Mike Huckabee).

So since 1980, South Carolina has selected the eventual nominee in a contest that wasn’t a foregone conclusion or decided by dirty tricks twice. Big deal.

All that said, Elliott’s piece on the role of The Beacon — and the character therein — in presidential politics was pretty fine.

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