In modern times, no state has a record for vicious presidential primary politics to match South Carolina. “In South Carolina, meanness is a political virtue,” former John McCain advisor Steve Schmidt said earlier this week on MSNBC. “This state has a political culture that is unique in America.” Schmidt’s former boss knows this better than anyone. In 2000, coming off a big win in New Hampshire over George W. Bush, McCain was the victim of a whisper campaign, reputedly spawned by George W. Bush’s campaign, that spread the false rumor that the Arizona senator had an out-of-wedlock black child and that his wife Cindy was a drug addict.
The worst part: It worked. Bush beat McCain, a victory that changed the dynamics of the race and helped propel Bush to the nomination. More than anything, that’s what has set South Carolina’s GOP primaries apart: Voters are known to respond to the ugliness.
As the 2016 Republican campaign moves on to South Carolina, with the leading candidates debating there on Saturday night, there’s every expectation that an already-nasty race will turn nastier. This expected ugly turn is dictated not just by South Carolina’s long history of dirty tricks, but also by the logic of the race. The field is starting to winnow and the primaries are coming faster and faster. Candidates no longer have the luxury of months in Iowa and New Hampshire to calibrate their message. They have to finish off their rivals as soon as possible.
The problem is, though, what avenues of personal attack are left? After all, this is a race in which Donald Trump has insulted Jeb Bush’s manliness and Carly Fiorina’s physical appearance, and likened Ben Carson to a child molester. Moreover, Trump has done all these things not in the time-hallowed Bush family manner of starting whispering campaigns, but out in the open, publicly and brutally. In the age of Trump, is there any room for back-stabbing when the front-runner is a master of stabbing people in the front, live on national television?
Trump himself provides the juiciest target for whisper campaigns this time around. His two divorces alone, let alone his libertine life while a bachelor, is full of hair-raising material that would cause anyone who believes in family values to pause. Yet Trump’s sheer brazenness and shamelessness would make it hard to get very far with this sort of gossip. When attacked, he’s unlikely to retreat and might successfully fend off attacks by his openness.
One symptom of the havoc that Trump has wreaked with his rivals is that they’re still struggling to figure out how to attack him. No one is having a harder time than Jeb Bush. To give him due credit, Bush has stood out of the pack by constantly criticizing Trump, but he’s shown a tendency to focus on trivial non-issues that are easily brushed aside. Recently, Bush and his surrogates have zeroed in on Trump’s vulgar language. “There are kids listening to this, for crying out loud,” Bush complained.
It’s true that Trump’s open use of foul language is new to American politics. Even Nixon kept his profanities private, although they have since been revealed by White House tapes. And it might be that among the more prim, religious denizens of South Carolina, Trump will turn off people with his swearing. But it’s just as likely that Trump’s hardcore supporters love his salty language, seeing it as a mark of authenticity.
Bush, who needs to follow up his decent showing in New Hampshire with a much better one in South Carolina, would clearly love to take Trump down. But as his sniffing at swearing proves, Bush wants to continue to cast himself, as his father before him, as a genteel voice of respectable Republicanism. This facade of civility shouldn’t hide the fact, however, that the Bushes have always been willing to use surrogates and front groups to launch the vilest sort of political attacks, ranging from the naked racism of the Willie Horton ad used against Michael Dukakis in 1988 to the McCain smear campaign in South Carolina to the personal vilification of the Swift Boat crusade against John Kerry in 2004.
This year, who knows? Maybe one of the Bush’s minions will revive an old tactic and whisper—this time quite truthfully—that Ben Carson has black children. More seriously, the jokes about Marco Rubio’s high-heeled booties could, in a proper whisper campaign, be used to suggest a fatal lack of manliness. Ted Cruz’s history with Goldman Sachs might create an opening, too, in a state where Newt Gingrich made great hay four years ago by casting Mitt Romney as a “vulture capitalist.”
Covert gossip campaigns are not the only way to go ugly in South Carolina, as Gingrich’s assault on Romney showed: Instead of spreading rumors in the shadows, it can pay to be openly aggressive. In 2012, Gingrich won a massive victory in the state, getting more than 40 percent of the vote to second-place Mitt Romney’s 28 percent—thanks in no small part to the classic video, “When Mitt Romney Came to Town,” which portrayed the former Massachusetts governor as a predatory vulture capitalist whose firm ruined the lives of the salt-of-the-earth American workers whose companies they took over.
The Gingrich models suggests openings for an anti-Trump argument that has been strangely underused by the other Republican candidates thus far. In his many business deals, especially in his bankruptcies and deployment of eminent domain, Trump has run roughshod over ordinary working people. Ads that tell these stories are likely to be more effective than pearl-clutching about Trump’s swearing (or rumor-mongering about Trump’s swinging “New York values.”)
Cruz’s campaign has already created one very effective ad in this vein, showing Trump bullying an elderly widow who refused to sell her home to make room for a parking lot for a Trump casino. Airing in South Carolina, this spot includes a quick flash of a Washington Post article about Trump’s alleged ties with the mob.
More well-targeted attacks in this vein wouldn’t completely demolish Trump’s support. As always, some of his fans would see them as evidence of his admirable toughness. Still, they could help put a ceiling on Trump’s rise, showcasing as they would actions that would bother Trump’s white, working-class base.
Saturday’s debate will surely be fierce—a sneak preview, most likely, of the ferocious week to come—and South Carolina’s GOP primary has quite a reputation to live up to for nastiness. The state has proven an excellent place for kneecapping a frontrunner, as McCain and Romney can attest. The setting is right. The question this week is whether any of Trump’s rivals can find the right formula to take him down.