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‘Dirty’ Politics As Usual In South?

Filed by KOSU News in Politics.
January 21, 2012

South Carolinians are voting today in the GOP primary, which some pundits see as the candidates’ last stand for getting the GOP nomination to run in the general election.

On weekends on All Things Considered today, host Guy Raz talked with Danielle Vinson, the chair of the political science department at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., about what is often considered “dirty” South Carolina primary politics.

“If you don’t come of out here with a first or second place, it’s hard to keep going,” she says. “So by the time they get here everybody takes off the gloves.”

One of the most famous examples she cites is a whisper campaign during the 2000 presidential primary that falsely claimed then-candidate John McCain of fathering an illegitimate child with a black prostitute.

Vinson says this type of campaigning goes back to at least the ’70s, if not before. One of South Carolina’s most famous political operatives was GOP strategist Lee Atwater.

“He made it very clear that nothing was off limits when it came to campaigns, public or private,” she says.

These type of attacks cut across party lines, and though they often work, they can also backfire. Vinson says that was the case for South Carolina’s current governor, Nikki Haley, who was accused of being unfaithful to her husband.

“She actually ended up winning the primary in part because people didn’t think she’d been treated fairly during the campaigning,” she says.

Often candidates in a primary race don’t differ too drastically on the issues, Vinson says, so in order to separate the candidates the political operatives go for the private lives.

Though South Carolina has been known for its “dirty” primary politics, Vinson says it’s important to remember that not all of it is driven by the state.

“A lot of what’s gone on in the presidential primaries over the years is actually been outside groups coming in and paying for phone calls in the state,” she says. “So we can’t take credit for all of the nastiness.”

A few examples of ads and robo-calls in South Carolina:

Click the audio link at the top of this post to listen to the full All Things Considered story on the South Carolina primary, including a report from NPR’s Don Gonyea and an interview with Richard Land, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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