PICKENS, S.C. — The label says “Make Honey Great Again” and it comes in a plastic bottle shaped like Donald Trump. It sells for $20 a pop. On a good day, Todd Gerhart might sell 1,000 bottles.
This, he said, is looking like a very good day.
Gerhart surveyed the Trump supporters queued up along a street lined with merch tents before a pre-Independence Day rally earlier this month in this town of about 3,300 a half-hour outside of Greenville.
The crowd size is difficult to grasp. Gerhart said he heard 42,000 registered for free tickets. The town’s police chief later estimated 50,000 showed up. Trump himself eventually claimed 75,000. Whatever the official count, it’s a scene.
A Republican donor from Charleston, Gerhart, 61, is plugged into state GOP circles. And from what he’s heard, crowds like this ought to worry Trump’s opponents in the state’s 2024 presidential primary — especially Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“My friend is DeSantis’ campaign manager for South Carolina,” he said. “They did an event, and he said, ‘We had 400 down in Beaufort.’ If there were 400 people that showed up for this event, and that was it, Trump’s done.”
Such is the chasm between Trump and DeSantis in the Palmetto State, home to perhaps the most crucial primary in DeSantis’ bid for the White House.
While South Carolina trails Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada on the 2024 primary calendar, the demographics of its Republican electorate — a mix of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, military families and old money — has historically been a better reflection of Republican voters nationwide. Winning here means crucial early momentum in every state that follows. Since 1980, every South Carolina winner but one — Newt Gingrich in 2012 — has gone on to take the GOP nomination.
DeSantis fits the bill of a candidate who should do well in South Carolina: A pugilistic Southern governor whose agenda parallels that of lawmakers in Columbia, the state capital. He’s campaigned here at least three times since April. In one two-week stretch in June, he spent $1.8 million in South Carolina alone, according to tracking firm Ad Impact, far more than any other candidate.
Yet in public polling, DeSantis trails Trump in South Carolina by 20-plus percentage points — a margin that appears to be growing.
The DeSantis campaign didn’t respond to questions about his South Carolina strategy. In interviews elsewhere, DeSantis has emphasized the strength of his campaign’s ground game in early-primary states, telling Fox News’ Martha MacCallum that his agenda is “introducing ourselves to as many people as we can.”
He has seven months to do it. If DeSantis can’t make it in South Carolina, which holds its primary nearly a month before Florida, can he make it anywhere else?
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“A long history of being the rebels”
During his first public trip to Charleston in April, it took DeSantis about 15 seconds to bring up his family ties to South Carolina, where his wife, Casey, went to college and her parents still live.
“We would come and visit a lot,” he said. “And I can tell you, if you go back, that was almost 20 years ago. Every year we’d come back to visit, I could see more traffic on the roads, more people. I mean, honestly, it’s similar to what we’ve seen in Florida over the years, with people coming down here.”
If you’re going to politick in South Carolina, you’ve got to convey a connection to the state and its culture. It’s how Gingrich, from neighboring Georgia, topped eventual nominee Mitt Romney in 2012. It’s how John Edwards, from neighboring North Carolina, topped eventual nominee John Kerry in 2004. And it’s how Greenville’s own Jesse Jackson walloped eventual nominee Michael Dukakis by nearly 50 percentage points in 1988.
“South Carolina has a long history of being the rebels, and being somewhat out of sync with the cultural players, press players in America,” said Brent Nelsen, a professor of politics and international affairs at Furman University in Greenville. “To be out of sync with New York and Washington is a good thing in South Carolina, and has been for a long time.”
Winning South Carolina can help candidates surge in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee or North Carolina. Losing can knock candidates out of the race entirely. Just ask John Connally in 1980, Bob Dole in 1988, John McCain in 2000 or Jeb Bush in 2016. All bet big on South Carolina, but faltered after underwhelming primaries.
For this reason, South Carolina can be a vicious battleground. This is where in 2000 political operatives spread a false rumor that McCain had fathered a Black child out of wedlock. It’s where in 2010 a blogger and a consultant, both with ties to other candidates, claimed they’d had sexual trysts with then-gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley.
“Stuff like that gets pulled often at the last minute, pulling on some of the typical prejudices of a lot of people,” Nelsen said. “That’s how candidates try to make their way. They pull race cards, they pull gender cards, all kinds of things. It’s part of the scene here.”
That hasn’t happened yet in the 2024 race — not even from Trump, and certainly not from his opponents. Instead, DeSantis is pushing his own story, plastering key markets with television ads and thick, glossy mailers.
“I’ve never seen such expensive literature coming to my house,” Nelsen said. “There was a while there, right around his (April) announcement, we were getting two pieces a week. And they were really expensive pieces.”
DeSantis’ ads in South Carolina portray him as “the angry Ron DeSantis, the fighter Ron DeSantis,” Nelsen said. “There are a lot of clips of his taking down reporters and taking on hecklers from the crowd. It’s clearly, ‘I’m Ron DeSantis, I’m a fighter and I’m a winner,’ and that’s how he’s so far trying to distance himself from his main competition.”
That competition includes two of South Carolina’s highest-profile politicians: Haley and Sen. Tim Scott. Both are generally well-liked across the state, especially Scott, whom Trump calls a “good man.” Their presence in the 2024 race makes it harder for DeSantis to claim he’s the candidate who best understands South Carolinians.
But DeSantis need not look far back for encouraging parallels. In 2016, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz ran a hard-right campaign in South Carolina that set him apart from a cluster of more mainstream Republicans, including Floridians Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio. Cruz finished a close third behind Trump and Rubio, and ended up outlasting Rubio in the overall race.
If DeSantis campaigns to the right of every other candidate, “maybe that’s the same split, that you’ve got Trump and DeSantis occupying some space, and then you’ve got all of these other ostensibly establishment, moderate Republicans trying to vie for that middle ground,” said Drew Kurlowski, an associate professor of politics at Coastal Carolina University.
Given Trump’s standing in the polls, DeSantis might need a broader coalition of Republicans to stay relevant.
“We might not have a Republican nominee until very late in the primary season,” Kurlowski said. “But I think we will have dramatically fewer candidates after South Carolina. And it’s important to make sure that you’re one of the ones to survive.”
The path to an upset
Ashley Trantham was exasperated. The Republican state House representative from Greenville County said she’d spent “three years” drumming up support for a law barring transgender athletes from women’s sports. It wasn’t until May 2022 that the bill she introduced was signed by Gov. Henry McMaster.
Compare that to Florida, she said, where in 2021 Republicans pushed through and got signed a similar bill in weeks.
“I see DeSantis in Florida doing it not only quicker, but sooner,” she said. “He was doing things so fast that it really didn’t even give those that opposed it time to build a rally against it. It was just the way I like to see things done.”
Trantham is among 15 state lawmakers who in June officially endorsed DeSantis for the nomination. She hadn’t planned to endorse anyone. But DeSantis, she said, was the sort of candidate who could not only get to the White House, but push conservative legislation through once in office.
“A governor should be a leader,” she said, “and I see that happening in Florida.”
Lost in the chatter about DeSantis trailing Trump is the fact that the governor does have significant backing in South Carolina. He’s consistently polled at around 20%, solidly second and well above Scott, Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence.
Should Trump drop out due to legal issues, health concerns or any other reason, DeSantis would immediately become the party favorite. But it’s not his only path to victory.
“After Iowa and New Hampshire, I think you’re going to see the Republican field narrow,” said DeSantis backer Chris Murphy, a state representative from Dorchester County, outside Charleston. “If and when Scott and Haley drop out, I think you’re going to see those supporters go to DeSantis. If they were Trump supporters, they’d already be with Trump.”
DeSantis doesn’t even need to win South Carolina to “win” South Carolina. Trump, Kurlowski said, has a base that’s simply unmovable — call it 30% of Republicans — and that alone might be enough to win. But placing a close second might give DeSantis just enough momentum that, as more candidates falter, he could suction up votes to overtake Trump on March 5 — Super Tuesday — when more than a dozen states will hold primaries, including the delegate-rich states of California and Texas.
“Assume that (Trump) is still at his baseline 30%,” Kurlowski said. “A candidate in the 20s is absolutely a viable candidate going forward. … If Trump has 30%, and he leaves 70% to the rest of the candidates, if you are someone who can pull a third of that support, I would say that’s a huge move towards consolidating the non-Trump wing of the Republican Party. And I think that’s the victory.”
To gain traction in South Carolina, DeSantis might target urban areas like Charleston, Nelsen said, where Rubio nearly did well enough to capture a few delegates; or pitch Florida’s economic successes in the Greenville-Spartanburg Upstate region, home to a booming manufacturing industry.
DeSantis is the only candidate who can effectively run as a governor, Nelsen said.
“Chris Christie isn’t going to take out his New Jersey record and say, ‘Hey, I want to make South Carolina like New Jersey,’” Nelsen said. “That is not going to fly well. But the Florida thing does seem to resonate in the South.”
That Casey DeSantis, a constant on the campaign trail, went to college in Charleston is another factor in the governor’s favor.
“The young family? That’s playing well,” Murphy said. “I see a point where you may see an emphasis on Casey DeSantis coming to a lot more functions in South Carolina solo.”
Ultimately, though, for DeSantis’ South Carolina ground game to work, he’ll have to hit the ground, too.
“I just think he’s got to show up,” said Mike Elder, vice chairperson of the Charleston County Republican Party. “He’s had some issues with the personal side of things. If I were to give him advice, it would just be, have more roundtables, more town halls, and just make sure the people know who he is.”
A daunting MAGA mountain
Barbara Allen belongs to a rare class of South Carolina voter: She’s already cast a vote for DeSantis, in 2018, while living in Palm Beach Gardens.
“He’s done wonders for Florida,” said Allen, 74. “He gets the job done. He’s like a mini-Trump, in my mind.”
Then she moved to Mountain Rest and registered in South Carolina. And when Trump came to Pickens, she camped in line some 24 hours before he took the stage. As good as DeSantis is, she said, he needs to “step carefully” when campaigning against the former president.
“He might have messed himself up next time by jumping into this one,” she said. “He’s getting a little bit of a bad rap from jumping into this one among Trump fans, MAGA fans.”
Nikki Rye sees it. She owns Patriot Events, a political merchandise company from Largo that’s followed Trump to more than 30 states, including multiple stops in South Carolina. At the Pickens rally, hers was the only tent selling any DeSantis merch — three magnets total, only two of which showed his face.
“I used to sell DeSantis stuff like crazy, in with my Trump stuff — until he said he was running. And as soon as he said he was running, people started laying down their alliance,” said Rye, whose brother runs the Conservative Grounds coffee shop in Largo. “I love him, I’m not disrespecting him, but I really think he hurt himself a little. … He’s not going to win over the die-hard MAGAs. They’re die-hard. They’re just, it’s embedded in them.”
Elder, the Charleston GOP official, put it this way. Trump has been demonized and persecuted and railroaded — in Congress, in the 2020 election, on Jan. 6, 2021, outside the U.S. Capitol. His supporters don’t just recognize that; they feel it and take it personally. And they take notes on those who don’t.
“It’s not just happening to him, it’s happening to us,” he said. “It didn’t happen to DeSantis. It didn’t happen to Tim Scott. A lot of them missed the opportunity to be there when he got indicted in Miami, especially DeSantis. He should have been there.”
Trump isn’t shy about taking shots at DeSantis, or “DeSanctimonious,” as he calls him from the stump. DeSantis has chosen his words more carefully. Other politicians could tell him there’s a price to crossing the former president. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, for example, is a onetime Trump foe turned supporter, and when he spoke at Trump’s rally in Pickens — 20 minutes from where he grew up — he was mercilessly booed the whole time.
If DeSantis can’t give it to Trump like Trump gives it to him, he’s just “anger without fun,” Nelsen said — “too much the Ivy League wonk, even though he’s trying to be the populist shouter and fighter and all of that.” And in a state where “you’ve got to be able to capture the hearts and minds of a kind of ornery population,” that temperament might not be enough.
“My sense is that DeSantis can’t hit the heart,” Nelsen said. “Minds are with DeSantis, but hearts are with Trump.”
As they waited in line outside the Pickens rally, Lamar Southerland and Rich Olsen weighed the choice. DeSantis, both said, seems like a terrific leader and fighter in Trump’s mold. They have yet to meet a Trump supporter who doesn’t like him.
“When he gets up there and he’s on TV and he’s fighting these media people and putting them in their place, I’m cheering for the guy,” said Southerland, 58, of Pickens. “It’s fantastic.”
But he’s not Trump. He’ll never be Trump. And as long as Trump is in the 2024 race, they can’t be swayed.
Now, 2028? That might be a different story.
“Here’s what I’d love to see,” said Olsen, 58, of Greer. “What I’d love to see is Trump win and DeSantis come in behind, because Trump can only get four (years), and then DeSantis can come in and do eight years. How cool would that be? And then maybe Trump’s kid comes in behind DeSantis. I mean, now we’ve got the country back.”
“DeSantis is the future,” Southerland said. “Four years from now, he will get my vote. And four years after that.”
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