At first glance South Carolina seems the quintessential red state. It was first to secede from the Union in the Civil War, still flies the Confederate flag and has gone Republican in every election since Reagan. You might think South Carolinian Democrats are few and far between (I did). But a closer look at the last presidential election tells a different story.
In 2008, 20 of South Carolina’s 46 counties voted for Barack Obama. Of those blue counties, 12 showed over 60 percent support for the Democratic candidate. Two places stood out as especially enthusiastic about Obama: the President captured 68.5 percent of the vote in Orangeburg County and a whopping 75.1 percent in nearby Allendale County.
So how did a Democrat manage such numbers in the heart of the South?
I looked to the 2010 census data for clues. Though vastly different in population density—Orangeburg has almost nine times as many people as Allendale—the counties have something very important in common: a significant black majority. Orangeburg and Allendale are 62.2 and 73.6 percent African American, respectively. Perhaps just as importantly, these counties are two of the poorest in South Carolina, with over 31.6 percent of their population living in poverty. Other Lowland counties voted for Obama under similar conditions.
The opposite trend is obvious in Upstate South Carolina. Greenville County voted 61 percent in favor of John McCain. Though Greenville is the state’s most populous county, it is only 18.06 percent African American. Adjacent to Greenville is the much smaller Pickens County—88.7 percent white and 72.2 percent pro-McCain. Not surprisingly, both have less than 18 percent of their population living in poverty.
These census numbers suggest that vast economic and racial differences drive the South Carolina counties’ political diversity. At least they did in 2008. Will low-income, black voters in the Lowlands stick with Obama this year? Or will South Carolina’s growing poverty discourage even the most steadfast Democrat?
The support of relatively more affluent, white Upstate dwellers is not a guarantee either. Disenchantment with Wall Street transcends race and projected front-runner Mitt Romney might have a hard time defending his work at Bain Capital to the Tea Partiers in Greenville.
No matter who the candidate is, it’d be a mistake to think of South Carolina as just a red state.