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NPR Politics Podcast: South Carolina's Dirty Reputation


Now that the primary battle has arrived in South Carolina, we wondered about the state's reputation for dirty politics. Here's NPR's Susan Davis, Ron Elving, Sarah McCammon and Sam Sanders taking that on in NPR's Politics Podcast.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: This place, this state is kind of known as the part of a presidential election where things get really dirty. Like, I didn't know this was a thing, but now I know it's a thing. And why is this a thing?

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: I mean it's been a thing for a long time, right? Ron, you probably know more about this than anybody.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Yes. And before I throw any kind of aspersions on any other state, let me say I grew up in Chicago.

SANDERS: Dirty Chicago.

ELVING: When I die I'd like to be buried there so I can remain active in politics, but...


SANDERS: He's here all week, guys.

ELVING: South Carolina has this long-standing tradition of kind of no-holds-barred politics in which anything seems to be fair game. And in the year 2000, that included these phone calls and flyers and so on that told the voters of South Carolina that John McCain had a black child.

SANDERS: I remember that.

ELVING: They had pictures. They had pictures and so forth. And, of course, there's an adopted child in the McCain family, and the implication, of course, was something different. And this was, at the time, considered to be pretty toxic stuff. And a lot of people thought John McCain coming out of New Hampshire with a 20-point win would really do well in South Carolina. And instead, he tanked, and George W. Bush marched on to the nomination.

DAVIS: There's so much talk about negative politics and voters don't want to hear this, but South Carolina kind of embraces its role as being a dirty politics state. Lindsey Graham, who's a senator and former presidential consider who's now endorsed Jeb Bush, said come ready to play if you want to compete in South Carolina. And that - it's sort of a self-perpetuating phenomenon. There's a story in The Washington Post that's a good example of what's happening right now in South Carolina that's an example of these dirty tricks. They do these automated calls under the guise of sort of trying to guess who you're going to vote for. And they interview this one woman and she presses the button that says she's supporting Marco Rubio, and then the voice says, well, are you aware of the fact that Marco Rubio's for letting Syrians cross freely into the country?

SANDERS: Oh, wow.

ELVING: Which is not true, of course.

DAVIS: The push poll was being done Remington Research, which is part of Jeff Roe's political operation - Jeff Roe being Ted Cruz's campaign manager. And so, when they went to the Cruz campaign and said, why are you doing this, they said, we're not doing it. Perhaps it is someone posing as Jeff Roe's campaign organization to sort of double-ninja this negative attack...

SANDERS: Double-ninja.


DAVIS: ...To make you think it's Ted Cruz going negative. So it's, like, maybe - maybe Marco Rubio is posing as Ted Cruz's campaign to go...

ELVING: Is there is a Jedi mind trick going on here?

DAVIS: Exactly. Like, it's - the layers of complexity of going negative in South Carolina are really fascinating.

SANDERS: Shade on shade on shade.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: And, you know, I would look for more of that. A lot of this is going to come from the rumor mill, the whisper campaigns, the super PACs. You know, the super PACs can put these things out, but the candidate can say, we don't coordinate; I had nothing to do with that.

SANDERS: But will there be any big, salacious rumors that approach the 2000 McCain rumor level?

ELVING: I'm betting we won't. It's not a mono e mono like it was in 2000. So given the particular lineup that we have right now on the Republican side, I would say not. And on the Democratic side, there's a huge, huge, huge downside to either candidate trying something of that nature and having it backfire.

DAVIS: Although I wouldn't be surprised if we hear more from Donald Trump questioning where Ted Cruz was born, talking about him being born in Canada. I mean...

ELVING: Where did that go? That was so hot for a while.

DAVIS: We might, yeah - I mean, Donald Trump - you know, South Carolina's a good playground for him. He likes throwing these punches. So if voters like it there, this might, you know, feed into his style.

SANDERS: We should play that song.

DAVIS: The dirty, dirty South?

ELVING: Dirty, dirty South.



AALIYAH: (Singing) Dirty South. Can you all really feel me?

SHAPIRO: That's that the NPR Politics Podcast team. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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