A recent Winthrop University poll has optimistic South Carolina Democrats thinking there might be a chance their presidential candidate could actually win in the Palmetto State.
Conducted Sept. 18 – 26, the Winthrop poll shows Republican nominee Donald Trump leading Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by only four percentage points – 42 to 38 – among likely South Carolina voters. In that same poll, Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson received six percent support, while Green Party candidate Jill Stein garnered three percent support.
And while other recent polls have shown the race not to be anywhere near this close, the Winthrop result is not the first scientific survey showing a tight race between the two major party candidates in the Palmetto State.
By coupling the results with the 4.5 percent margin of error in the Winthrop survey, several Clinton supporters have been quick to point out this means the former Secretary of State could, mathematically speaking, actually be in the lead in South Carolina. This is true, but the flip side to that equation, however, is that it could also mean Trump is ahead by more than eight points, which would be a margin just slightly smaller than Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s defeat of President Barack Obama in South Carolina during the 2012 election, and about the same margin of victory as John McCain had in the Palmetto State in 2008.
Our own recent readers’ poll had Trump leading Clinton by a narrow margin, but (as we point out with each of our surveys) that result is not a scientific survey like the Winthrop poll is, and should be considered more like a snapshot of online support than an actual prognostication of November’s election.
So, does the latest poll, couple with similar polls recently, mean Clinton could actually be the first Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1976 to win in South Carolina? To evaluate that, let’s examine the playing field.
While South Carolina has a reputation for being a heavily-leaning Republican state, this doesn’t mean the state is “solid red,” especially when compared to truly solid Republican-voting states of similar size like Oklahoma, Alabama or Kentucky.
Margins of victory for South Carolina Republicans can be even narrower when there’s no incumbent on the ballot, like in this election. For example, while Gov. Nikki Haley’s rematch against Democratic nominee Vincent Sheheen in 2014 would be considered a blowout in modern elections (she won by more than 14 points), her initial victory over Sheheen in 2010 by only four points was a bit of a nail-biter.
In addition, the fact that both neighboring states North Carolina and Georgia are being considered highly-contested battlegrounds in 2016 can’t help but influence the South Carolina electorate. Recent Georgia polls have shown similar results to the Winthrop poll, with Trump leading there anywhere from two to seven points, while many polls of North Carolina voters have shown a statistical dead heat. The three states not only share borders, but also similar demographics, meaning it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that three states will vote similarly, if not exactly like each other.
But getting close doesn’t equal winning, and unlike the primaries, there are no potential consolation Electoral College votes for second place. With all the potential positives for her campaign taken into account, Clinton still has several daunting hurdles in front of her for South Carolina success.
The most notable, illustrated by the Winthrop poll, is that only about one in five South Carolina voters would consider her honest. In addition, 57 percent of South Carolinians responding to poll have an unfavorable opinion of Clinton. Typically, results like this would be the death knell of a candidate’s chances. However, as has been pointed out many times, this is no ordinary election cycle, and her major opponent has similar trust and favorability issues.
The ultimate factor, most likely, is going to be how the national Democratic campaign perceives their chances. The South Carolina race can’t really be considered competitive, no matter what poll might say, unless the Clinton campaign decides expending money and resources in the state will be worth the effort.
Let’s be clear, we don’t think the chances of Clinton actually winning the nine Electoral College votes from South Carolina are all that good, but we also don’t believe they’re non-existent. At the same time, just the fact that South Carolina could actually be competitive should worry Republicans about the potential nationwide results. And, if Clinton were to actually take the Palmetto State, odds are very good she would win the White House in an Electoral College landslide.