Recent polls on the U.S. Senate race in South Carolina found that third-term Senator Lindsey Graham was competing against Democrat Jaime Harrison, a former top aide to longtime South Carolina MP James Clyburn, and a one-time Democrat South Carolina Party, effectively bound, was chair. This is pretty surprising at first glance – Graham drove to victory in 2014 and won by 15 percentage points. And Harrison is not a political juggernaut; In fact, he has never won an election.
So what’s going on here? Is Graham really at risk of losing? Let’s look at this from both sides: first the reasons Harrison has a real chance, and then some factors that make Democrats unlikely to oust Graham.
South Carolina is not The Republican leaning
The polls suggest that at least 45 percent of South Carolina voters support Harrison, and that̵
The reason: The composition of the electorate in South Carolina is relatively good (up to a point) for Democrats. The electorate is 28 percent black – a higher percentage than any state except Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland and Mississippi. (About 28 percent of Alabama voters are also black.) And South Carolina has a higher percentage of white college-educated voters (27 percent) than any of these states except Maryland (29 percent). If you put these two groups together, you have the conditions for a sizeable democratic vote.
Also, President Trump is a little less popular in South Carolina than it was in 2016. His net job approval rating in South Carolina was +7 (50 percent approval, 43 disapproval) at the start of his term, compared to +2 now (50 percent) approval, 48 Percent disapproval), according to Civiq’s data. And that shift, and the unpopularity of the Trump-led GOP among college graduate whites in cities and the surrounding suburbs, gives Democrats more opportunities. Democrat Joe Cunningham won the Charleston area congressional district two years ago, becoming the first Democrat to do so since 1978.
Graham easily runs after Trump
Recent polls show Trump is near or above 50 percent in South Carolina, but the state’s Senator won’t be in his mid to high 40s. So there is almost certainly a small block of South Carolinians who currently support Trump, but not Graham. According to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, the Senator has a net negative approval rating of -8 in the state. Trump is at +0 in this poll. (So an equal number of voters had positive and negative views.) A recent Morning Consult poll found that 84 percent of Republican voters in South Carolina supported Graham, compared with 93 percent who supported the president. Similarly, according to a recent survey by Data for Progress, 95 percent of Republicans in South Carolina supported Trump, compared with 89 percent who supported Graham. A recent poll by CBS News / YouGov found that 88 percent of self-identified Conservative voters support Trump, compared to 76 percent who support Graham.
We’re talking about pretty small differences here, so I don’t think there’s a clear and obvious explanation for why Graham is running behind Trump. But here is some half-informed speculation as to why some Republicans and Conservative Independents who like Trump might be suspicious of Graham. In the past, Graham has adjusted to decidedly untrumped causes and people, from Graham’s close relationship with the late Senator John McCain to his pre-Trump demand for the GOP to pursue a more lenient policy against undocumented immigrants. Graham, who has served in Congress since 1995, is at the time the definition of a Washington insider. Also, Graham spent much of the 2016 campaign blowing up Trump in very harsh terms, including the phrase “utter idiot”. (Graham ran for president himself, remember that.) So Republican voters might remember those comments and not trust Graham’s post-2016 conversion to Trump.
In fact, Jordan Ragusa, a political science professor at the College of Charleston, said that some voters who are skeptical of Graham, including Republicans, might see him as an “opportunist”.
“The joke in South Carolina is that Lindsey Graham can count to six … His voting behavior will change if he stands for re-election,” Ragusa said. (The senators stand for re-election every six years.)
“There are some strong conservatives who are not convinced that Graham is a strong conservative,” added Ragusa.
Graham, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, will play an important role in replacing the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But it’s not clear that this will be a big election boost. On the one hand, Graham is likely to defend Trump’s Supreme Court candidate, Amy Coney Barrett, and may be praised by the President in the process. On the flip side, the Supreme Court trial could reiterate the idea that Graham is not particularly consistent in his political beliefs and positions – he may have been the Republican who repeatedly said explicitly that his party would not seek to occupy a seat Supreme Court in the last year of a president’s tenure, a position he has of course now given up. In a recent debate between the two of them, Harrison aggressively attacked Graham for turning around on the matter, saying Graham should “just be a man of this and get up and say,” You know what, I’ve changed my mind. “
According to the YouGov poll, the Supreme Court question is unlikely to help any of the candidates much. In that poll, 28 percent of registered voters in South Carolina said they would be more likely to support Graham if he voted for Trump’s candidate (poll was conducted before Barrett was announced as an election), 27 percent said they would be fewer likely, but 45 percent said it wouldn’t affect their voice.
Harrison doesn’t give the Republicans much to attack
After all, Harrison may have a greater chance of winning just because he isn’t a big target for Republicans. He has never held an office and does not have controversial votes. Politically, his positions are similar to Biden’s center-left approach. For example, Harrison is not pushing for the Green New Deal or Medicare for All.
Even so, Graham is still the favorite to win. FiveThirtyEight’s Senate model gives him a 3-in-4 chance of winning. And there are reasons Democrats get a lot oh so close to win in Palmetto State, but almost always come up short.
Most white voters in South Carolina never vote for Democrats
We in the political media (myself included) talk and write a lot about demographics, especially educational differences: white voters without college degrees are getting slimmer Republicans and white voters with college degrees are getting more democratic. But these two blocks vote very differently depending on the state and region. Both groups are more republican-oriented in the south than in other regions. This conservatism probably has something to do with religion (white voters in southern states are more likely to be evangelical Protestants) and race (white voters in southern states are more likely to express negative attitudes towards people of color).
So are white voters in the south consequent Republican. That said, they don’t really swing between the two parties like they do in a state like Iowa, where Biden did 6 to 9 percentage points better than Hillary Clinton four years ago. At FiveThirtyEight we call this phenomenon “elasticity” – basically how many voters in a state are convincing and always vote for one party or the other. And South Carolina is one of the most inelastic Conditions.
So, like previous Democrats who ran in South Carolina, Harrison had a fairly easy path to 45 percent (combining the state’s black voters and its white Democrats), but he finds it much harder to get 50 percent. In the YouGov poll, Graham leads with 26 percentage points among white voters overall, with 31 points among white voters without a college degree and with 20 points among white voters with a degree. (Trump continues to list Biden among these three groups.)
And this is not a problem just for a South Carolina Democrat or a black candidate like Harrison. Similar to Harrison in South Carolina, polls suggest Mississippi Democrat Mike Espy (v. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith) and Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff (v. Sen. David Purdue) are competing. (Ossoff is white, Espy is black.) But Mississippi and Georgia are also pretty inelastic states. Espy and Hyde-Smith also faced each other in 2018, and the Republican won pretty narrowly by Mississippi standards (54-46).
So the closeness in the polls could overstate Espy, Harrison and Ossoff’s chances of actually winning. They can all run in states where a practically all-white bloc of more than 50 percent of the electorate will almost never vote for a Democratic candidate.
Maybe Harrison can be defined negatively
The Quinnipiac poll suggests that Harrison’s unfavorable ratings are pretty low in part because many South Carolina voters don’t know much about him. In that poll, 48 percent of South Carolina likely voters saw Harrison as positive, 35 percent negative, and 14 percent said they hadn’t heard enough from him to have an opinion.
I would expect the Graham and South Carolina Republicans to spend the next month connecting Harrison with Clinton, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Senator Bernie Sanders, and others who are likely unpopular with South Carolina Republicans and Independents. Harrison doesn’t have a lot of ties to these numbers, but that probably won’t stop Republicans from claiming he’s a socialist and advocating very liberal politics.
I wouldn’t rule out a Harrison win. Maybe Biden wins by a really big margin, wearing states like Georgia and Texas, and losing South Carolina by just 3 points. In this scenario, Graham might run a little behind Trump and Harrison win. The more likely scenario, however, is that Harrison gets around 45 to 47 percent of the vote – but falls a little short. At least that’s what usually happens in South Carolina.