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How Did Lindsey Graham End Up In Such A Close Race?

Recent polls of the U.S. Senate race in South Carolina have found third-term Sen. Lindsey Graham effectively tied in his contest against Democrat Jaime Harrison, a former top aide to longtime South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn and a one-time South Carolina Democratic Party chair. This is pretty surprising at first glance — Graham cruised to victory in 2014, winning by 15 percentage points. And Harrison isn’t some political juggernaut; in fact, he’s never before won any elective office.

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So what’s going on here? Is Graham actually in danger 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 ousting Graham unlikely.

South Carolina is not that Republican-leaning

The polls suggest that at least 45 percent of voters in South Carolina back Harrison, and that’s not an unusually high number for a Democrat running in the Palmetto State. Forty-five percent of South Carolinians voted for Barack Obama in 2008, and 44 percent did in 2012.1 In 2018, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in South Carolina received 46 percent of the vote, and the Democratic attorney general candidate 45 percent. Joe Biden seems likely to get at least 45 percent of the state’s vote too.

The reason: The makeup of South Carolina’s electorate is relatively good for Democrats (up to a point). The electorate is about 28 percent Black — a higher percentage than every other state save Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland and Mississippi. (About 28 percent of Alabama’s voters are Black too.) And South Carolina has a higher percentage of white voters with college degrees (27 percent) than all of those states but Maryland (29 percent).2 Put those two groups together and you have the conditions for a sizable Democratic vote.

Also, President Trump is slightly less popular in South Carolina than he was in 2016. His net job approval rating3 in South Carolina was +7 at the start of his term (50 percent approval, 43 disapproval) compared to +2 now (50 percent approval, 48 percent disapproval), according to Civiqs data. And that shift, and the unpopularity of the Trump-led GOP with college-educated white people in cities and surrounding suburbs, gives Democrats more of a chance. Democrat Joe Cunningham won the congressional district in the Charleston area two years ago, becoming the first Democrat to do so since 1978.

Graham is running slightly behind Trump

Recent polls show Trump near or above 50 percent in South Carolina, but the state’s senior senator only in the mid-to-high 40s. So there is almost certainly a small bloc of South Carolinians currently backing Trump but not Graham. According to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, the senator has a -8 net negative approval rating in the state; Trump is at +0 in that poll. (So an equal number of voters had favorable and unfavorable views.) A recent Morning Consult survey found that 84 percent of South Carolina Republican voters backed Graham, compared to 93 percent who supported the president. Similarly, according to a recent Data for Progress poll, 95 percent of South Carolina Republicans supported Trump, compared to 89 percent who backed Graham.4 A recent CBS News/YouGov poll found that 88 percent of self-identified conservative voters were backing Trump, compared to 76 percent supporting Graham.

We are talking about fairly small differences here, so I don’t think there is a clear and obvious explanation for why Graham is running behind Trump. But here is some semi-informed speculation about why some Republicans and conservative-leaning independents who like Trump might be wary of Graham. In the past, Graham has aligned himself with decidedly un-Trumpy causes and people, from Graham’s close relationship with the late Sen. John McCain to his pre-Trump call for the GOP to adopt more lenient policies toward undocumented immigrants. Having served in Congress since 1995, Graham at this point is the definition of a Washington insider. Also, Graham spent much of the 2016 campaign blasting Trump in very harsh terms, including calling him a “complete idiot.” (Graham ran for president himself, remember.) So Republican voters might remember those comments and not trust Graham’s post-2016 conversion to Trump diehard.

Indeed, Jordan Ragusa, a political science professor at the College of Charleston, said that some voters skeptical of Graham, including Republicans, might view him as an “opportunist.”

“The joke in South Carolina is Lindsey Graham can count to six … His voting behavior changes when he is up for reelection,” Ragusa said. (Senators are up for reelection every six years.)

“There are some strong conservatives who are not convinced Graham is a strong conservative,” Ragusa added.

Graham, as the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, will have a high-profile role in the process for replacing the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court. But it’s not clear that will be a big electoral boost. On the one hand, Graham will likely be defending Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, perhaps getting praise from the president along the way. On the other hand, the Supreme Court process could reinforce the idea that Graham isn’t particularly consistent in his political beliefs and positions — he was perhaps the Republican most explicit in saying, repeatedly, that his party would not try to fill a seat on the Supreme Court in the last year of a president’s term, a position he has of course now abandoned. In a recent debate between the two, Harrison aggressively attacked Graham for flip-flopping on this issue, saying Graham should “just be a man of it and stand up and say, ‘You know what, I changed my mind.’”

According to the YouGov poll, the Supreme Court issue isn’t likely to help either candidate much. In that poll, 28 percent of registered voters in South Carolina said they would be more likely to back Graham if he voted in favor of Trump’s nominee (the poll was conducted before Barrett was announced as the choice), 27 percent said they would be less likely but 45 percent said it would not affect their vote.

Harrison doesn’t give Republicans much to attack

Finally, Harrison may have more of a chance of winning simply because he doesn’t present much of a target for Republicans. He’s never held office before and doesn’t have a record of controversial votes. On policy, his positions are similar to the center-left approach of Biden. For example, Harrison is not pushing the Green New Deal or Medicare for All.

All that said, Graham is still the favorite to win. FiveThirtyEight’s Senate model gives him about a 3-in-4 chance of winning. And there are reasons why Democrats often get oh-so-close to winning in the Palmetto State but almost always fall short.

Most white voters in South Carolina don’t vote for Democrats … ever

We in the political media (myself included) talk and write a lot about demographic groups, particularly the education divide: white voters without a college degree increasingly lean Republican and white voters with college degrees lean Democratic. But those two blocs vote much differently depending on the state and region. Both groups are more Republican-leaning in the South than in other regions. That 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 more negative attitudes towards people of color).

White voters in the South also tend to be consistently Republican. That is, they don’t really swing between the two parties as they do in a state like Iowa, where Biden could do 6 to 9 percentage points better than Hillary Clinton did four years ago. At FiveThirtyEight, we call this phenomenon “elasticity” — basically, how many voters in a state are persuadable vs. always vote for one party or the other. And South Carolina is one of the most inelastic states.

So Harrison, like previous Democrats who have run in South Carolina, had a fairly easy path to 45 percent (combining the state’s black voters and its white Democrats) but has a much, much harder time getting to 50 percent. In the YouGov poll, Graham leads by 26 percentage points among white voters overall, by 31 points among white voters without a college degree and by 20 points among white voters with degrees. (Trump leads Biden by even more among these three groups.)5

And this is not a problem just for a Democrat in South Carolina or a Black candidate like Harrison. Similar to Harrison in South Carolina, polls suggest that Mississippi Democrat Mike Espy (facing Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith) and Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff (facing Sen. David Purdue) are in competitive races. (Ossoff is white, Espy is black.) But Mississippi and Georgia are also fairly inelastic states. Espy and Hyde-Smith also faced off in 2018, and the Republican won fairly narrowly by Mississippi standards (54-46).

So the closeness in the polls may overstate Espy, Harrison and Ossoff’s chances of actually winning. They may all be running in states where a virtually 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 fairly low in part because a lot of South Carolina voters don’t know much about him. In that survey, 48 percent of likely South Carolina voters viewed Harrison favorably, 35 percent viewed him unfavorably and 14 percent said they hadn’t heard enough about him to have an opinion.

I would expect Graham and South Carolina Republicans to spend the next month linking Harrison to Clinton, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Sen. Bernie Sanders and other figures likely to be unpopular with South Carolina Republicans and independents. Harrison doesn’t have many connections to those figures, but that likely won’t stop Republicans from suggesting that he is a socialist and favors very liberal policies.

I wouldn’t want to rule out a Harrison victory. Perhaps Biden wins by a really big margin, carrying states like Georgia and Texas and only loses South Carolina by 3 points. In that scenario, maybe Graham runs slightly behind Trump and Harrison wins. But the more likely scenario is that Harrison gets around 45-47 percent of the vote — but comes up a bit short. At least, that’s what usually happens in South Carolina.

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  1. Only 41 percent of people there backed Hillary Clinton four years ago.

  2. Those numbers come from “States of Change,” a 2019 analysis of the American electorate that was a joint effort of the Center for American Progress, the Bipartisan Policy Center, Democracy Fund and the Brookings Institution.

  3. The share who approve minus the share who disapprove.

  4. Includes Republican-leaning likely voters.

  5. Other surveys show a closer race among white voters with a college degree, but Graham is leading with that group in all of them.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.