Strategic Voting in South Carolina?

Fred Thompson South Carolina Quin Hillyer makes an interesting — and judging by the polls, entirely academic — argument for why South Carolinians should vote for Fred Thompson, even if they prefer Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney.

[H]e gives South Carolinians a chance to set out a marker and decapitate the presidential electoral primacy of Iowa and New Hampshire. Think of it this way: In every Republican presidential contest beginning in 1980, South Carolina has chosen the winner… but, and this is a very big “but”… it always has been forced to choose from a field already narrowed by the two smaller, front-running states. In effect, South Carolina was told it could take the Iowa winner or the New Hampshire winner, but nobody else.

But this time could be different. This time South Carolina could drive a stake through the two-headed Dracula once and for all by choosing its own candidate to push to the fore. When New Hampshire saved George H.W. Bush’s candidacy in 1988, he publicly thanked the state a full nine months later when he won the general election, and New Hampshire enjoyed disproportionate influence during his presidency. If South Carolina chooses its own candidate this time, and he goes on to win, November’s final election night could hear that candidate say “Thank you, South Carolina” in front of all the world.

In this case, Fred Thompson is the man whose entire career rests on South Carolina, and he is the only one who would thus owe the state so much. Not only that, but the race is wide open for South Carolinians to lay down just such a marker. After three major contests so far, GOP voters have chosen three different winners in Mike Huckabee, John McCain, and Mitt Romney. Why shouldn’t the Palmetto State make it four for four, especially for somebody who is the closest thing in the race to a native son?

For that reason, if I were a Rudy Giuliani man on Saturday, I would cast a tactical vote for Thompson, thus giving the former New York mayor a clear shot at Florida without a clear front-runner to overcome. I might even do the same if I were a Romney man seeing a Thompson surge in the state, figuring that one more loss by a suddenly shaky McCain or Huckabee in a state in which each was supposed to be strong might knock at least one of them out of the race and out of Romney’s hair. Tactically, it also makes sense for any mainstream conservative to want to give a boost to the most consistent conservative in the race, just to send a message to those who say the old Reagan coalition no longer has relevance. A win for Thompson on Saturday would tell the world that consistency across the full gamut of conservative issues still carries weight at the ballot box.

And demonstrate, once and for all, that Fred Thompson doesn’t take a dump, son, without a plan.

But it’s not going to happen. Most people don’t bother to vote in primaries. Precious few of those who do vote strategically, which is a good thing for a variety of reasons.

The pre-election polls missed Hillary Clinton’s surge in New Hampshire and did not forecast Mitt Romney’s strong win in Michigan, so they’re somewhat suspect. Predicting behavior is much harder than gauging attitude, especially at a point in time when so many are still undecided. Still, they’ve come reasonably close to capturing the order of finish and vote totals.

Here’s what they show for South Carolina, a mere two days out:

South Carolina Republican Primaries poll

It’s a two-man race, trending heavily toward McCain. Thompson is actually losing support:

South Carolina Republican Primaries Poll Trends

For Thompson to win, he would need to keep his own supporters from defecting to one of the two contenders and attract most of Romney’s and Giuliani’s supporters. That’s not going to happen.

Were I a Thompson supporter voting in South Carolina (and I’m neither of those things) I’d either vote for Thompson, anyway, for the satisfaction of expressing my wishes or vote for McCain as the next best viable alternative — and to help stop Huckabee. Most likely, the latter.

I’d likely do the same as a Romney or Giuliani supporter. Ultimately, I’d pick among the realistic choices rather than trying to guess the impact my vote would have three states later in the process. There’s not enough certainty to play that game with any confidence.

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Public Opinion Polls, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Triumph says:

    Thompson is the last great hope for the country. Given the fact that McCain served as a spy for the North Vietnamese, has had a love child with a woman of color, and is clinically insane as a result of his POW experience, the sure hand of Fred Thompson is needed now, more than ever.

  2. Steve Plunk says:

    I don’t like to do this sort of thing but the first comment needs to be addressed.

    Whether sincere or satire, whether to support McCain or Thompson, or whether to disparage McCain or Thompson it is without value in any measure. Certainly there are more worthy thoughts to share in order to enlighten those whose read these pages.

    As far as strategic voting, I doubt there has ever been anything of the sort in the history of the United States. People just don’t vote that way. It’s an academic game to play if you got the free time.

    Let’s just hope Thompson gets busy and drives those numbers up so he can get more attention. Strong on issues and ideas he is a solid choice for the party once we clear the pretenders out of the way.

  3. Triumph says:

    Strong on issues and ideas he is a solid choice for the party once we clear the pretenders out of the way.

    Unfortunately, the only element Fred is lacking is the requisite experience to connect with the South Carolina electorate. Sure, he’s a slow-talking, lackluster dolt, with no understanding of the world outside of his Hollywood bubble (remember, he’s the genius who thinks that Cuban dissidents are fleeing Castro’s rule to “suitcase bomb” the US).

    But he is no match in the insanity department for Huckabee, who predicts he will prevail in South Carolina because of his expertise in deep-frying and eating squirrels.

  4. Steve says:

    How Can any conservative vote for Romney?

    He was listed as one of the top ten Republicans in Name Only by Human Events Magazine.

    What will he be after the primary?

    And would he be another George Bush if he gets elected?

  5. Jason says:

    Thompson? He’s the one that used to do lobby work for that pro-abortion outfit, right?


    Ok. Dude from Law and Order, right. Same guy who doesn’t have a thing to show for his time in the Senate, except for some obscure report he drafted that nobody read called Government On the Brink. Woohoo.

    I like Mike because of his tax plan. No more paying taxes up front. You keep your pretax earnings till you decide to spend it. Save as much as you want. Assume a 20 percent tax rate for the sake of illustration, and right now it comes out of every check you get. Then most of us have health insurance, Social Security tax, and what’s left over is less and less with the price of gas. With a sales tax, no payroll tax: that 20 cents sits in your bank account earning interest until the day you spend your earnings. Pretax earnings. Exactly what happens when you invest in a traditional IRA.

  6. Tano says:

    Actually Jason, its a 30% tax rate that he is proposing.
    What rate are you paying now?

  7. Beldar says:

    Dr. Joyner, you have far more faith in polls than I do, or than their results (especially recently) would merit.