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The Presidential Race Is About to Get A Lot Dirtier In South Carolina

South Carolina already has a reputation for nasty political tricks. With some Republican candidates fighting to stay alive, this could get ugly.
February 12, 2016, 2:45pm
Photo via EPA/Erik Lesser

If you thought the Republican primary races in New Hampshire and Iowa were ugly, you haven't seen anything yet. As the six remaining Republican candidates head to South Carolina for the next primary contest on February 20, the real battle is just getting started in a state notorious for its aggressive and dirty style of campaigning.

Many thought Sen. Marco Rubio would finish strongly in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary in strong second place, finally bringing some clarity to the Republican race. But after his disastrous, glitch-filled debate performance last Saturday, Rubio ended up in fifth place while little-known Ohio Gov. John Kasich came in a surprise second behind Trump. Now, the Republican race looks like it's going to be a long, bloody battle between the remaining "establishment" candidates —  Jeb Bush, Kasich and Rubio — only one of whom will emerge to take on the Donald Trump-Ted Cruz double-headed monster. Dr. Ben Carson, who placed in eighth behind two candidates who have since dropped out, is also competing.

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It's fitting that this death match is taking place in South Carolina, which has a notorious history of playing dirty when it comes to politics. In past elections, voters have been subjected to robocalls, anonymous pamphlets left on their front steps, and ruthless advertisements, all from mysterious operatives spreading rumors about rival candidates. During the 2000 election, for example, Republican frontrunner John McCain was the target of an anonymous smear campaign that his wife was a drug addict and their adopted child was born out of an adulterous affair. In 2007, Republican voters were sent fake Mitt Romney Christmas cards featuring controversial passages from the Book of Mormon.

On Wednesday, South Carolina's Republican senator Lindsey Graham — who has endorsed Jeb Bush — made it clear the gloves were about to come off.

"If you're not ready to play," Graham said on Wednesday at a Bush campaign event, "don't come to South Carolina."

Ready or not, the dirty tricks have already begun. The Charleston Post and Courier created an anonymous site they're calling the "Whisper Campaign" for South Carolinians to submit tips of any questionable mailers or advertisements they've seen. So far the site has received fourteen submissions. One described a call from someone saying they were from the Bernie Sanders campaign and reminding them to vote on February 20, when in fact the Democratic primary is actually on the 27th. Another submission described lawn signs saying that Donald Trump has paid for 12 abortions in his lifetime.

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Two South Carolinians reported to the Post & Courier that they had been subjected to what they believed was a push poll. Push polling is a campaign tactic in which groups conduct polls mainly to spread negative (and often false) information about other candidates, rather than to get a sense of who voters support. One individual said he received a robocall from an alleged polling company that made "inflammatory" and "inaccurate" statements about Rubio and Trump before asking if either candidate would earn his or her vote.

Another reported that an automated poll spread negative information about Trump and asked if those statements made the person angry. "One question asked how I felt about the fact that Trump is trying to stop veterans from running businesses in New York City because they are eyesores. I thought that was an odd question. I am not a fan of Trump..[.] but this was definitely trying to put ideas in my head," the voter reported. "Whether they are true or not..[.] I have no idea."

Of course in this election, the dirty tricks have not just been limited to South Carolina. In Iowa, Cruz's campaign caught heat for sending an email to its volunteers on caucus night (incorrectly) telling them that Ben Carson was dropping out and encouraging caucusgoers to move over to their side. A mysterious group said they would pay people to fill seats at a Bush event, which the campaign vehemently denied and blamed on a pro-Cruz super PAC. In both Iowa and New Hampshire, anonymous notices appeared in people's mailboxes publicizing their neighbor's voting preferences, in an attempt to shame people into voting.

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So it makes sense that people are already on the look out for sleazy campaign tricks in South Carolina. But this doesn't mean there will be any less of them — it just means that the campaigns and the super PACs that support them will have to be especially crafty.

"Yes there will be dirty tricks but these campaigns will be smart enough to not have their fingerprints on them," said Joel Sawyer, a veteran South Carolina political strategist.

"Everybody is going to take some hits here," Sawyer, a Republican, added.

Most of those hits will likely be carried out by super PACs and other outside groups that are not "technically" affiliated with a candidate, which allows campaigns to distance themselves from the dirty work being carried out on their behalf.

Will Folks, a former spokesman for then-South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and political blogger, expects most of the mud slinging to come from Jeb Bush's camp and his Super PAC, Right to Rise. "If we do see any shenanigans down here, look for the fingerprints of the Bush family," says Folks. "cause they're the ones who gave this state the reputation in the first place," he said.

Folks was referring to the brutal anti-McCain attacks during the 2000 primary which many attributed to Bush family operatives working on behalf of George W. Bush's campaign. Folks is no stranger to dirty politics himself, having claimed that he had an affair with Gov. Nikki Haley during her gubernatorial campaign, an allegation Haley has repeatedly denied.

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Right to Rise has raised and spent by far the most money of any outside group in this election — "they're richer than God," Folks says. The group has used their cash to fund a "scorched earth" strategy of attack ads, mainly to pummel Bush's establishment rivals, especially now Rubio and Kasich, rather than taking on Trump directly. Right to Rise has already spent $10 million in South Carolina and said this week that they plan to pour another $1.7 million into the state before the Republican primary on February 20. They have already begun airing two ads in the state, a positive spot that features George W. Bush touting his younger brother and a second questioning Rubio's experience.

The role of super PACs in South Carolina is made even more prominent due to the importance of what Sawyer calls the "air war" there. South Carolina is home to many more Republican voters than Iowa and New Hampshire and they're spread out over larger areas. This makes the door-to-door campaigning and retail campaign stops that dominated Iowa and New Hampshire physically impossible in South Carolina, says Sawyer. It is much easier to target wide swaths of constituencies through television and radio ads, mass phone calls and dropped-off campaign pamphlets, rather than trying to visit every single county in the state.

The only person who seems to be excited for South Carolina's nefarious style of campaigning is, who else, Donald Trump.

"We've already had dirty tricks in this campaign," he told CNN on Tuesday night after his New Hampshire victory. "I'm ready for whatever they want to throw at me and that's fine."

Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter:  @obecker928