Eyes Turn to South Carolina

Diverse Electorate Provides More Accurate Picture Than N.H., Iowa

By Published on .

GREENVILLE, S.C. -- We're now less than two months away from the Iowa Caucuses, and interest in the 2008 Presidential Election is heating up across the country. While much of the focus will be on the traditional king-maker states of Iowa and New Hampshire, there's a new harbinger state of special significance this primary season: South Carolina.

Unlike the contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, South Carolina's primary is totally open to all voters. There is no party registration here and any voter may vote in either party's primary (but not both, of course).

The Palmetto State also features tremendous diversity, from high-growth, urban corridors with large numbers of upscale voters to rural voters from areas economically challenged by the loss of jobs to China and other foreign countries. About a third of the population is African-American; in the Democratic primary here, roughly 50% of the voters are expected to be black. Given these dynamics, the candidates of both parties have an opportunity to test a range of messages.

And, boy, have they been testing their messages! Because of South Carolina's place on the primary calendar and its status as a political gateway to the rest of the South, candidates have been campaigning here with a fervor we've never seen before. Their visits to all corners of the state are numerous, their ads have been airing for months, and the frequency of both is increasing daily.

As a marketer, I've been fascinated to see how a New Englander like Republican Mitt Romney has tried to reach out to our state's population while former North Carolina Democratic Sen. John Edwards, who actually hails from Seneca, S.C., has instead focused most if his time and energy in Iowa. It'll be interesting to see how the various candidates shape and deliver their messages given the new realities of primary politics.

I have no crystal ball, but money is a key factor and the candidates who spend the most will be more successful here. That said, the strategies of how to spend money are clearly different among the leading candidates. For example, Hillary Clinton's team is less focused on building a large field team, while Barack Obama's team has built the largest field team I've ever seen here. Ads are powerful, but field forces often build momentum that doesn't show up in early polls.

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A former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, Joe Erwin is president of Erwin-Penland, a 180-person full-service advertising and marketing agency in Greenville, S.C., that is part of Interpublic Group of Cos.' Hill Holliday Connors Cosmopulos.
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