Lay of the Land: South Carolina GOP primary

John McCain can go a long way toward nailing down the Republican presidential nomination by winning Saturday’s primary in South Carolina, the state in which he suffered his most serious loss to George W. Bush in 2000. Eight years ago, McCain got 42 percent of the vote in South Carolina’s GOP primary (which is not restricted to registered Republicans, as in some states) to Bush’s 49 percent. But with more credible candidates running this time, 42 percent is probably enough for a victory.

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The map below is pegged to that 42 percent figure. Green counties are where McCain ran ahead of his statewide average in 2000, and purple counties are where he did worse than his statewide average. McCain did best in the fast-growing coastal counties, including Charleston and Beaufort (which includes the resort area of Hilton Head), perhaps because this area has a lot of ex-Northerners who have relatively moderate views on social issues. Though the Navy and Air Force no longer maintain large military bases here, a large veterans’ population probably also helped the Arizona senator. But McCain did poorly in blue-collar, religiously conservative Greenville and Spartanburg counties (once a major textile manufacturing area but now also the home of several auto-assembly plants) and in the suburbs of Columbia, the state’s largest city. (Columbia’s Richland County was something of a bellwether, giving McCain 44 percent of the vote.) These areas seem like a natural constituency for Mike Huckabee, who is likely to be McCain’s chief rival in South Carolina.

If McCain can improve on his 2000 showing in Greenville and Spartanburg, he will probably win the primary and also do well in future Southern primaries. Conversely, if Huckabee can win on the coast, he probably can win in similar fast-growing parts of the South, such as in coastal Florida and in the parts of Virginia now within the orbit of Washington, DC.