Evidently, I was misreading the signs (or lack of them)…

In a comment on a previous post, Scout was talking about how James Smith did better than Democrats usually do in her Lexington County precinct. She went on to say:

James got significantly more votes than Sheheen did against Haley the first time around in actual vote numbers (not percentages), but the turnout was just bigger all around, so it still wasn’t enough.

Clearly James got more democratic votes than typically happens around here. But again, It just still wasn’t enough…

That got me to thinking about this: Statewide, James not only got a lot more votes than Democrats usually do; he got way more votes than Republicans usually do. Consider:

  • In 2006, Mark Sanford won with 601,868 votes.
  • In 2010, Nikki Haley won with 690,525 votes.
  • In 2014, Nikki won even bigger with 696,645 votes.
  • In 2018, James got 784,182 votes — and lost.

It’s sort of a cliche that big turnout favors Democrats. Not this time.

One explanation I’ve heard is that the S.C. population is growing rapidly — and that a lot of the newcomers are people who don’t know squat about either Henry or James, but brought the habit of voting Republican along with them when they came here.

But obviously that’s not the whole answer. A lot of other factors were at work here.

For us on the Smith campaign, that outcome is counterintuitive. The lack of enthusiasm for Henry even among Republicans was palpable throughout this campaign. He barely squeaked by in a runoff in his own party’s primary, and was particularly weak in the Upstate — which is one reason why James did about 20 percentage points better than Vincent Sheheen had done in Greenville.

All over the state, we could see that almost no one wanted a McMaster sign in his front yard. My brother, who lives in a Republican neighborhood in Greenville, kept sending me pictures of Smith/Norrell signs next to signs for Republicans running for other offices. I thought maybe he was just noticing the things he wanted to see, but when I spent the day up there before the second debate and drove around looking, I saw the same thing — Smith signs everywhere, McMaster signs almost nonexistent. (And I’m not the kind of guy who fools himself into seeing only what pleases him. I’m hypercritical — always looking for the things that are WRONG — and attach great importance to bad news. Every McMaster sign I saw during the campaign was like a kick in the gut. But during all those months, I got very few kicks in the gut.)

It would be foolish to go by yard signs alone in trying to predict an outcome (so you can save your breath telling me that), but the McMaster sign deficit was so HUGE that I kept thinking it was a ruse of some sort. Maybe the McMaster campaign was deliberately holding the signs back, and they’d all go up in the last few days before Election Day to give him and his supporters a psychological boost, and discourage our voters. Or something. The lack of red signs was just weird.

(One day shortly after joined the campaign in July, I drove past the McMaster headquarters on Gadsden Street behind the governor’s mansion. The yard was full of signs, and I thought, so that’s where they all are! I almost did a blog post about it, but decided it would be unseemly given my role in the campaign. Anyway, I figured that sooner or later, I’d start seeing them scattered across the state in great profusion, and then I’d regret having made fun. But it never happened…)

Obviously, it seemed to us, we had the enthusiasm advantage. We weren’t counting our chickens or anything, because we knew the odds were always against a Democrat. But we had some things to feel good about. And the reason I’m talking about the sign thing, as insignificant as it it, is that it was something tangible I can point out to you.

It stood to reason that McMaster would get the votes of people who always voted Republican, but from what we could see, that was about it — and he wouldn’t get all of those (we were seeing and hearing a lot of indicators on that point). So how is it that there was both a big turnout, apparently with lots of people who had never voted for governor in previous years, and Henry still won?

It’s impossible to know for sure, but we can speculate…

I took this photo on July 12. I thought, "So THAT'S where all the McMaster signs are -- at his headquarters!"

I took this photo on July 12. I thought, “So THAT’S where all the McMaster signs are — at his headquarters!”

32 thoughts on “Evidently, I was misreading the signs (or lack of them)…

  1. Doug Ross

    At some point will you offer anything that suggests the Smith campaign made any errors in strategy or execution? He lost by exactly the same percentage that everyone figured he’d lose by four months ago. He failed to beat the weakest Republican candidate since David Beasley.

    Has anyone from the campaign done a review of what could have been done better/differently?

    The red flags were obvious all along but there didn’t appear to be anyone inside the campaign willing to even acknowledge them.

    – Campaign manager from Indiana who probably had little idea of SC politics
    – 17 year old kid with some position of responsibility
    – Website updated sporadically and rarely with an up to date calendar
    – No contact with donors by email (I’d love to hear the explanation for why I didn’t get any communication from the campaign despite donating TWICE)
    – The co-governor roadshow

    Perhaps the reason you didn’t see much from or about Henry was because they never felt threatened in any way. He didn’t even have to bring out the big guns in terms of going negative and swatted away any of the barbs from Smith without much trouble.

    McMaster won because the state is in good shape economically currently. People didn’t see any reason to change and Smith didn’t provide a compelling case to do so.

    1. Doug Ross

      From a recent USC study of population growth in SC:

      “The state’s annual population growth rate for the 65-74 group came in at better than 11 percent. In the Lowcountry, they equal more than 14 percent of new growth.”

      A lot of older retirees are moving into the state. They aren’t likely to vote for a Democrat normally.

      Maybe the strategy for Democrats is to find issues that impact older citizens to grab some of that vote. It certainly isn’t Medicaid and schools. Maybe prescription drug cost offsets, casinos (yes, old people like to gamble), tax breaks for retirees… If you want to win, you have to target voters who are voting Republican now…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        We did push the tax breaks for military retirees — James talked about it regularly — but Henry’s for that, too, so it didn’t differentiate us.

        Back on Boyd’s favorite topic — as I always told him, he made a good case for the casinos. Here were a couple of his points:

        — Unlike the lottery and video poker, which exploit the poor (sending affluent kids to college for free on the backs of people who can’t afford their gambling addiction), this appeals more to middle-class voters. It’s a destination thing. People who have the money pay to go to places where the casinos are.

        — Also unlike the lottery and video poker, casinos provide jobs, employing hundreds if not thousands.

        He made a good case. And we never said no, we absolutely are against that. Just like with sports betting — when we were asked about it, we said yes we should move to regulate it and tax it, because it was coming, while Henry tried to wish it away.

        But it was never anything we wanted to embrace. Why? Because James and Mandy — and I, for that matter — are about good government, not about gimmicks. Yep, it’s kind of old-fashioned to be about good government in a reality-TV world, but that’s who they are…

        And good, smart government meant a lot more than Medicaid expansion, although it seems that’s the only one you were hearing. We were about smart governance with regard to education, infrastructure, taxes, the environment, economic policy, pretty much any major thing that government does. We were interested in governing and governing well, as opposed to, say, ranting about “sanctuary cities” and other fantasies…

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      I just saw Doug’s first comment above: “At some point will you offer anything that suggests the Smith campaign made any errors in strategy or execution?”

      Nope. Oh, you might find things to criticize on execution, internally — too much turnover in the campaign early on, which meant, as some far more experienced people than I pointed out, by the time Scott Hogan and I and some others were on board, we were having to catch up on things that professionals will tell you should have been done earlier.

      I don’t know what that was about. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know why James kept finding it necessary to fire top managers. I mean, we had our own occasional tensions and disagreements — that’s inevitable in such high-pressure circumstances — but he didn’t fire US. So I don’t know what happened with the other people.

      Still, I don’t think we were so much in the hole because of that inside-baseball stuff that I just mentioned that we couldn’t catch up. I won’t fall back on excuses like that.

      And didn’t you answer your own question? In the end, it turns out that people ignored what we said and swallowed the total B.S. that everything in S.C. is just hunky-dory.

      “Smith didn’t provide a compelling case” to the contrary? Really? Where on Earth were you? He did so very strongly on point after point, over and over, day after day. On energy, on healthcare, on infrastructure, on the environment, on economic development, in practically every area that government touches. No open-minded, rational person who was paying attention could have come away thinking things were fine, and that Henry was the leader we needed. But people aren’t required to be rational when they vote, as you may have noticed from time to time….

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Now do I kick MYSELF for this or that thing I did or didn’t do? Of course. But I do that anyway, about everything.

        Almost none of that, though, is because of anything I DID. It’s more the stuff I didn’t do. And that tends to be stuff that I just never found the time to do. Each day I triaged what had to be done and did my best to make the right calls, and some of those calls are bound to have been wrong….

  2. Claus2

    Where were all of the Smith signs? I live in Lexington County and the only places I saw them were down Hwy 1 and Hwy 378. I don’t think I saw a single Smith sign in my neighborhood.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Everywhere. Even in Republican neighborhoods, I’m guessing we had four or five for every one for McMaster.

      My neighborhood is seriously Republican, and aside from the ones in my yard, I recall seeing about four Smith signs on my frequent walks around the neighborhood. Finally, just before the election, I saw ONE for Henry…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Here’s a Tweet I did one day that I spent in Greenville. My brother had been sending me pictures like this, but that day I saw, in driving about town, that this was pretty much the norm. McMaster signs were VERY rare…

    2. Doug Ross

      I still saw some straggler Smith signs on Farrow Rd at the Killian Rd intersection this weekend. Someone should go pick them up because they are the only ones that were still out there three weeks after the election.

      I think signs are WAY overrated. Is that really the message you feel you want to send to voters? “You are so dumb you will vote for me because you see my name printed on a sign”. Save your money next time and use it instead on person-to-person campaigning.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        You think they’re overrated because you, like me, probably think the Bandwagon Effect is dumb.

        It IS dumb, at least on a certain level, but it’s real. An awful lot of people are highly susceptible to voting for someone that they see lots of OTHER people are going to vote for. And it’s not just about voting — if you create the sense that someone is viable, and signs are a good, semi-subliminal way of giving that impression, it can help you with contributions, attracting volunteers and other useful things.

        As for the signs you mention, I’ll see if I can find someone to get them. If I can’t find someone out that way, I’ll go get them myself…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          And in the context in which I’m writing about signs here, they’re a measurement of something otherwise intangible — the degree of connection to and approval of a candidate that individual voters out there feel.

          I’m talking about the signs in people’s yards, not the ones you see along the side of the road along commercial corridors, which measure campaign organization more than anything else, I guess.

          But when a person decides to put one of your signs in front of his or her home — and frequently people go out of their way to reach out to you to GET a sign — it’s a personal statement and an indicator of strong approval. I know I felt, as someone who had never done such a thing — that it was a big deal to ME to put out those signs for James and Micah.

          You’re making a public declaration, for which your neighbors and every passerby is likely to judge you on some level. It’s a commitment, made before the world.

          As I saw the huge advantage we had in private yard signs everywhere I went, I was cheered by it. But I also had a dark thought at the back of my mind — that the odds were still against us because… well, because partisanship has a grip on people that overrides their own personal judgment.

          The signs for us showed there was a lot of positive personal feeling aimed at James. The lack of such signs for him showed that even Republicans — which we know exist in larger numbers than Democrats — just didn’t have those kinds of positive vibes about Henry. Practically no one liked him enough to make that small commitment, that personal declaration to the world of liking him.

          Which was a good thing for us. But I still worried. I worried that personal approval wasn’t worth enough. I worried that people’s minds were so enslaved to party identity that even though they didn’t like the guy, and didn’t want their neighbors THINKING they liked the guy, and even though personally they might like the OTHER guy, they’d vote for him because he had an R after his name, period.

          And that’s kind of the way it turned out.

          2016 shook my faith in democracy a great deal — and I’m talking about the whole spectacle in both parties’ nominating processes, not just what happened in November. I kept thinking that if the electorate is so far gone that they’ll go with party rather than their own personal judgments, I’d lose the rest of the faith I still had.

          I don’t know if that happened or not. I’ll have to keep checking myself to see just how cynical this made me. But it was a pretty sorry spectacle to see people vote who didn’t like the guy they voted for, just because of party.

          Oh, and before someone does the usual partisan thing of saying Democrats can be just as slavish to party as Republicans — yeah, they can. And it’s disgusting. But I wasn’t worried about them. The problem was that there are more Republicans than Democrats in South Carolina — so if all the partisans went with party instead of their own judgment, we would lose.

          If everybody was just as partisan but we were in a Democratic state, we’d have won. But it still would have been for the wrong reasons…

          1. bud

            Brad, would you vote for a member of the Nazi party? How about a Communist? Or what about a Green or Libertarian? Party affiliation absolutely does matter. To such voters should not consider party is ansurd. Today’s Republican Party is just not an option for me. And I make zero appology for it.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              Well, Bud, as long as all the partisans vote straight party in South Carolina, we will be governed by Republicans.

              Seems to me it would be in your interest to do what I do, and try to get everybody to be more open-minded. Then some of the Democrats you support might have a chance to win election…

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Thanks. Because it’s way out of my way to go there. Maybe we can meet for a beer and you can give them to me to deal with.

            Of course, I won’t have the heart to throw them away….

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                I almost called you this past weekend to see if you wanted to check out the new brewpub over on my side of the river. But I decided it would probably be less crowded if we wait a bit, rather than go on the opening weekend…

            1. Scout

              Yea, I have three in my garage. And I still see a few driving between some of my schools in North Aiken County. I’ll get them too.

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                I have three different types, I think. The Smith yard sign went through several iterations.

                When I got my first one, just before the primary, it was this type. Later, we came out with the Smith/Norrell ones. I got one of those, too, and put one on each street, since I live on a corner. The Smith/Norrell was the one I gave up because there wasn’t one at my polling place on Election Day.

                But when we were cleaning up and shutting down HQ, I picked up a couple of the collector’s-item, obsolete ones from early in the primary campaign. Remember these?

                How about these?

                It was a campaign that evolved a lot along the way…

      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        One other thing I didn’t address from Doug’s comment: “Save your money next time and use it instead on person-to-person campaigning.”

        I assure you, we did all the retail politics we could, as much as any two candidates could possibly personally do. As I’ve said before, I marvel at the way James and Mandy kept going and going and going. I doubt that it’s an exaggeration to say Henry didn’t do a tenth of what James did along those lines.

        Of course, that’s one thing you didn’t have to stand over James to get him to do, unlike, say, making fund-raising calls. He LIKED the meeting-and-greeting stuff, and would do it all day and night if you’d let him. And by and large, we let him. Actually “let” is the wrong word. James was the boss. He did what he wanted. And person-to-person campaigning is what he loves…

  3. bud

    In a blue wave year I found the enthusiasm for Smith remarkably low. Heck Sanford’s old district flipped blue so it is possible for Democrats to win here. Also, a Democrat did well in Georgia, just barely missing a runoff. I’m sure when you’re an insider in a particular campaign it must seem like a huge amount of enthusiasm. But I just never felt it. I never heard a radio ad, not did I see any billboards. The tv ads I saw didn’t give me a reason to vote for Smith. The ad with the story about the lost phone was just awful. I came away wondering why I’d vote for a man who put his family in danger. Also, why waste expensive air time telling us your great, great grandfather fought in the revolutionary war? Brad I know you fawn over this military stuff but most voters just really don’t care.

    I want to here about my health care and taxes and what you’d do about offshore drilling and guns and the nuclear power plant fiasco. Frankly Henry’s ads were much better telling us what he’d do.

    At the end of the day I voted for Smith. Not really much choice. But it really seemed more about party politics rather than any real enthusiasm for the candidate.

  4. Doug T

    Smith good at retail politics? At Gallivant’s Ferry Smith stood off to the side surrounded with his people while Noble and Willis worked the crowd. It was conspicuous the difference. To be fair Sheheen didn’t meet and greet either when I saw him at the stump meeting.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I said he liked it; not that he was good at it. But since you bring it up, I thought he WAS quite good at it, particularly toward the end.

      I have no idea what happened at the Stump. Far as I’m concerned, all that stuff was just a prelim he had to get through before the real contest. Whatever he did in the primary, it worked, since he won a three-way race with more than 60 percent of the vote.

      But over the course of a year, I saw James become better and better and public speaking. And I never saw him ill-at-ease in personal interactions. There were days he might be tired or harried in private, but he loosened up around voters.

      My concern from the start was that, like Vincent, he was no sterling orator. But he got better and better.

      I remember thinking that at his kickoff announcement last October, he did quite well, for James. I thought it promising.

      But much later, I looked back at the video, and saw how nervous he was, and how it showed. It stuck out because by the time I looked back, he had gotten SO much better….

      1. Doug Ross

        When I watched James (including in person at the Hanger event), I got the feeling he would always rather be with his family, or riding his motorcycle, or playing guitar with his band. There just never was that passion or energy that you saw with Mandy. Probably because he knew deep down that losing the election just meant getting to do all those things I listed sooner.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          FYI, I address that — what you say about James’ laidback default manner — in a separate comment, here

          But since you bring up the Hangar event, I can tell you another little story about it…

          Like every day in the campaign, but especially the ones on “the bus,” that day had been really, really long.

          It had started with a bunch of his Army buddies — Team Viper — riding with him on the bus, up to a veterans’ retirement home in Anderson County. It was so crowded I rode in the chase car with Scott Harriford for the first couple of stops, until some of our people gave the veterans a ride back to Columbia. We never got around to lunch that day, so James and Mandy and I had grabbed an early dinner at a Mexican place in Orangeburg before heading back to Cola to get ready for the Hangar thing. (That quiet dinner was my first, and as it turned out only, chance to talk at any length with him about what he wanted to say the next night, win or lose.)

          We had dropped James off at his home to change, then Mandy and German (the RV driver) and I had gone to HQ to pick up campaign manager Scott Hogan.

          Which brings me to what I wanted to tell you…

          What you saw is Mr. Cool Laid-back Rocker James arriving on his motorcycle with the RV following, with his ol’ lady riding on the back of the bike — “Whoa, man, here are a bunch of friends! Let’s stop here and have a couplea brewskis!”

          What you didn’t see was this: James has a Bluetooth device in his helmet that works with one of his iPhones. I was his contact on the RV, and I guided German (who, being from Charleston, isn’t very familiar with Columbia). I sat up next to German, and guided him south on Pickens, working with James so he could wait for us at the convenience store at Pickens and Rosewood, and pull out in front of us when we got to that intersection. (I was reporting to James, “OK, we’re passing Whaley… coming up on Hollywood… passing Hollywood…”) It was really dark, but finally we saw the rear lights of the motorcycle up in front of us. Then James guided us on a sort of winding route to the venue, dodging the many potholes you encounter in that area, and German was griping to me about “Tell him this isn’t a motorcyle I’m driving!,” which James heard and laughed about. I told him I thought German was concerned about running him over, but later I realized he was just saying we weren’t as maneuverable as a bike. We were also worried because the RV had been having mechanical trouble, and German had also complained a bit about those steep ups and downs on Pickens.

          Then when we got there, I thought there was no crowd because there was nobody on the side of the hangar where we had had an earlier event, but finally saw they were on the parking lot side. Then we faced the challenge of trying follow the bike as it threaded a circuitous route through the parked cars. I was kind of amazed that we managed it. German is a really good driver…

          I was amazed that we managed to pull up right behind him as he pulled his helmet off and got off the bike and greeted everybody.

          And it didn’t occur to me until I read your comment that the effect was that James came off looking like a laidback guy who liked to hang with his fam and his buds rather than campaign… We had just been through a tense few minutes, at the end of an intense day…

          I’m reminded of a story I once read about Steve McQueen. I was a HUGE Steve McQueen fan when I was a kid, and this story sort of took the aura off him a bit. I read of a time when Steve spent several hours getting out of a car over and over, practicing until he looked really, really cool doing it. The thing is, he WAS cool, but sometimes he actually worked at being that way…

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            On the other hand, while it was a production, James WAS winging it. I had been dealing on the phone with somebody with the campaign at the venue who had a DIFFERENT notion of how we should arrive, and I was simultaneously dealing with that person and saying, “No, here’s what James is going to do…”

          2. Doug Ross

            Different event,I think. October 7. I got there about an hour before he played with the band. You had just left.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              Oh, that one! That one was awesome.

              Dang. I guess I did all that typing for nothing… 🙂

              At the one you attended, I didn’t get to hear James’ band. My favorite among the ones I did hear was Soda City Brass Band. Have you ever heard and seen them play? They put on a great show…

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                Oh, and the one YOU attended — the music bash fund-raiser — really WAS more of a party than the event I had in mind. James and everybody else was there to have a good time — AND raise some money, which we did.

                Me, I was busy, doing things like shooting videos such as this one…

                The event I was thinking of was a full-fledged political event — the very last one of the campaign before Election Day — with speeches and all…


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *