South Carolina primary voters broke turnout record

People walk past a polling station as the state votes in the primary election on Feb. 29 in Charleston, S.C.
SPENCER PLATT/GETTY IMAGES/TNS

BY JOSEPH BUSTOS
MCCLATCHY WASHINGTON BUREAU/TNS

COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina’s turnout for the Feb. 29 Democratic presidential primary was high.

How high? The state’s Democratic Party on Monday reported that the number of voters who turned out for the Democratic presidential primary surpassed 2008 numbers when then-candidate Barack Obama was running for president.

More than 539,000 S.C. voters cast a ballot in the primary, won by former Vice President Joe Biden, the South Carolina Elections Commission reported. That is about 7,000 more voters than the number of South Carolinians who voted in 2008.

“That’s really significant and no one really saw that coming,” said Gibbs Knotts, a political scientist at the College of Charleston who co-wrote a book on the history of South Carolina’s primary contest. “Most people thought (the turnout) would be between 2016 and 2008. It’s impressive that it exceeded expectations.”

‘Monumental moment’

Turnout increased by large percentage amounts in several area including counties in the state represented by U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, a first-term Democrat representing the low country.

That turnout is now giving the party some confidence that voter numbers will translate to success come November.

“This is a monumental moment for Democrats in South Carolina,” said SCDP Chairman Trav Robertson. “Voter turnout from this past weekend reflects what many of us already knew: South Carolinians have had enough. These numbers should scare Republicans, especially Trump’s lackeys like Lindsey Graham.”

Factors for surge

Knotts said the turnout is a testament to, in large part, likely the sudden surge that Biden had in the week leading up to the primary.

But it’s also a testament, he said, to the operation that Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign built and also likely the millions of dollars that billionaire Tom Steyer blanketed airwaves with played a significant role.

Another big factor? South Carolina’s rising population.

Although the number of voters increased this year, the percentage of voters who participated was lower than in 2008, as there are more registered voters now.

In 2008, 23% of the state’s 2.2 million voters turned out for the Democratic primary. In 2020, 16% of the state’s 3.3 million voters participated in the Democratic presidential primary.

No GOP primary

But keep a few historical points in mind, Knotts added.

There was no Republican contest last month after the South Carolina GOP Executive Committee voted to nix a Republican presidential primary and the South Carolina Republican Party still had higher turnout in the 2016, 2012 and 2000 Republican primaries.

In 2016 alone, when eventual President Donald Trump ran, there were more than 737,000 people who voted in the Republican Presidential primary, which nearly doubled Democratic turnout in 2016.

With that said, Knotts said, “to beat that (2008) number is impressive and certainly because there wasn’t anybody in this race that had the campaign ability and star power of Barack Obama.”

Maayan Schechter contributed to this report.

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