Poll Analysis: Bush Maintains Slight Edge in South Carolina, but Anything Could Happen

     South Carolina, like the rest of the South, used to be a state where Democrats were assured victory. Now South Carolina leans to the right ideologically and is the only state in the country that continues to fly the Confederate flag over its State Capitol. With less than a week before its Republican primary, South Carolina primary voters are torn between clinging to its more centrist Democratic days and grasping on to a conservative Republican agenda that speaks to its current Southern value system.

Primary Match-Ups
     According to the latest Los Angeles Times poll among voters likely to vote in the upcoming South Carolina Republican primary on February 19th, George W. Bush edges out John McCain by two percentage points--42% to McCain's 40%--a lead that is within the poll's margin of error. Alan Keyes, the only other candidate left in the dwindling Republican race, receives 5% of the vote.     Thirteen percent of voters were undecided at the time the poll was conducted.

The Republican Primary
     In South Carolina, residents merely register to vote and are not required to register in a particular party. In other words, anyone who is registered to vote in South Carolina more than 30 days before an election can vote, which is particularly critical in this highly contested primary as it allows Democrats and independents a voice.     While Bush maintains a solid lead among self-identified Republicans (55% to McCain's 30%), McCain wins among both independents and Democrats, who together, the poll projects, could make up 45% of likely primary voters.
     Among Democratic primary voters, McCain gets 58% of the vote to Bush's 24%; independents give McCain 46% to Bush's 36%.In contrast, conservative Republicans, who comprise 18% of the vote, support Bush by more than 2:1 (60% to McCain's 25%).
     White Christian fundamentalists also overwhelmingly support Bush, giving him a 14 point lead over McCain.     Currently, 9% of Republicans are undecided, but 16% of Democrats and 15% of independents do not know for whom they will vote come February 19th. Should these voters make their choice by Saturday and turn out to vote in the primary, and should they continue in their trend of supporting McCain, these voters have the ability to swing the race to a McCain victory. Similarly, in a lower turn-out model where fewer Democrats and independents would come out to vote, Bush increases his lead over McCain.
     However, high voter turn out is not the only predictor of the race. Over half (52%) of Bush's voters support him very strongly, while 44% of McCain's voters support him very strongly.     Nearly six in ten (58%) voters overall and almost seven in ten (69%) Republicans say that they think Bush will be the strongest Republican candidate come November ˆ and 29% of McCain voters agree. In contrast, just 4% of Bush voters say that McCain would be the strongest Republican candidate.
     Additionally, while South Carolinians tend to see John McCain as a maverick who is an independent thinker, they also associate him with the status quo, and to these voters, the status quo is Bill Clinton and a country they see as going more in the wrong direction than national polls indicate.
     Indeed, South Carolina likely primary voters are not particularly pleased with the job Clinton is doing: 51% of all likely primary voters disapprove, and 68% of Republicans disapprove. Moreover, a quarter of all likely voters believe that McCain's agenda is similar to Bill Clinton's (34% don't know, and 41% say McCain's agenda is different from Clinton's). Additionally, 42% of voters overall say that things in the country are heading in the wrong direction (47% of Republicans say so).
     All of these voters--those who disapprove of the job Clinton is doing, those who believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, and those who either believe McCain's policies are similar to Clinton's or don't know if the two men's policies are similar--are voting for George W. Bush by wide margins.

Rating the Candidates
     Nearly three-quarters of likely primary voters say that each candidate has the experience to be president. Additionally, both Bush and McCain get high favorable ratings, with approximately three-quarters saying they are favorable to each man.
     More strikingly, while a quarter of Bush voters have an unfavorable view of McCain, more than four in ten McCain voters (42%) have an unfavorable opinion of Bush.
     As in both Iowa and New Hampshire, in an open-ended question asking them why they are voting for their candidate, South Carolina likely primary voters cite their candidate's personal traits over his stand on the issues. The most important personal quality to likely primary voters in South Carolina is his honesty, followed by his leadership. In these areas, McCain beats Bush:
     * 37% of McCain voters say honesty applies to him; 26% say leadership applies.
     * 24% of Bush voters say honesty applies to him; 19% say leadership applies.
     McCain also does better than Bush in two forced choice questions asking likely primary voters to choose between the two candidates' proposals on the use of the budget surplus and the best way to enact campaign finance reform. In both cases, South Carolina likely primary voters opted for McCain's plans.
     Additionally, when voters were asked to choose which candidate they believe would be best at handling a variety of issues, they choose McCain in nearly every area, including having vision for the new century, as the candidate who can bring about change, and as best to handle Social Security and foreign policy. Voters are split as to whom they see would do the best job handling the budget surplus, and choose Bush as best to handle education and as the most effective at getting things done. It is perhaps this gap--between their belief that McCain is a candidate with vision who will bring change and their confidence that he will actually enact his ideas--that could lead to a McCain loss in this state. Voters who are worried about the direction of the country are not likely to elect a candidate they are not sure can get things done.

Other Issues
     Fewer than three in ten South Carolina likely primary voters (28%) say that abortion should always be legal, and 68% believe that abortion should be made illegal:
     * 52% say it should be illegal except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.
     * 16% say abortion should always be illegal     Those voters who believe abortion should always be legal overwhelmingly throw their support to McCain (53% to Bush's 36%) while those who believe abortion should be illegal favor Bush (45% to McCain's 36%).
     Though the issue surrounding South Carolina's flying of the Confederate flag has gotten much publicity, only 50% of South Carolina likely primary voters say that they believe the flag should be taken down. Additionally, these voters overwhelmingly say that they do not think a presidential candidate should publicly express his views on taking down the flag.

How the Poll Was Conducted
     The Times Poll contacted 1,047 South Carolina primary voters likely to vote in the Republican primary on February 19th. The poll was conducted by telephone February 10-12. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all possible exchanges. Random-digit dialing techniques were used so that listed and non-listed numbers could be contacted. The sample was weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age and education. The margin of sampling error for the entire likely voter sample is plus or minus 3 percentage points. For certain other subgroups the error margin may be somewhat higher. Poll results can also be affected by other factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented.Copyright © 2018, Los Angeles Times
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