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How Did Lindsey Graham End Up In Such A Close Race?

Recent polls of the U.S. Senate race in South Carolina have found third-term Sen. Lindsey Graham effectively tied in his contest against Democrat Jaime Harrison, a former top aide to longtime South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn and a one-time South Carolina Democratic Party chair. This is pretty surprising at first glance — Graham cruised to victory in 2014, winning by 15 percentage points. And Harrison isn’t some political juggernaut; in fact, he’s never before won any elective office.

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So what’s going on here? Is Graham actually in danger of losing? Let’s look at this from both sides: first, the reasons Harrison has a real chance, and then some factors that make Democrats ousting Graham unlikely.

South Carolina is not that Republican-leaning

The polls suggest that at least 45 percent of voters in South Carolina back Harrison, and that’s not an unusually high number for a Democrat running in the Palmetto State. Forty-five percent of South Carolinians voted for Barack Obama in 2008, and 44 percent did in 2012. In 2018, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in South Carolina received 46 percent of the vote, and the Democratic attorney general candidate 45 percent. Joe Biden seems likely to get at least 45 percent of the state’s vote too.

The reason: The makeup of South Carolina’s electorate is relatively good for Democrats (up to a point). The electorate is about 28 percent Black — a higher percentage than every other state save Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland and Mississippi. (About 28 percent of Alabama’s voters are Black too.) And South Carolina has a higher percentage of white voters with college degrees (27 percent) than all of those states but Maryland (29 percent). Put those two groups together and you have the conditions for a sizable Democratic vote.

Also, President Trump is slightly less popular in South Carolina than he was in 2016. His net job approval rating in South Carolina was +7 at the start of his term (50 percent approval, 43 disapproval) compared to +2 now (50 percent approval, 48 percent disapproval), according to Civiqs data. And that shift, and the unpopularity of the Trump-led GOP with college-educated white people in cities and surrounding suburbs, gives Democrats more of a chance. Democrat Joe Cunningham won the congressional district in the Charleston area two years ago, becoming the first Democrat to do so since 1978.

Graham is running slightly behind Trump

Recent polls show Trump near or above 50 percent in South Carolina, but the state’s senior senator only in the mid-to-high 40s. So there is almost certainly a small bloc of South Carolinians currently backing Trump but not Graham. According to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, the senator has a -8 net negative approval rating in the state; Trump is at +0 in that poll. (So an equal number of voters had favorable and unfavorable views.) A recent Morning Consult survey found that 84 percent of South Carolina Republican voters backed Graham, compared to 93 percent who supported the president. Similarly, according to a recent Data for Progress poll, 95 percent of South Carolina Republicans supported Trump, compared to 89 percent who backed Graham. A recent CBS News/YouGov poll found that 88 percent of self-identified conservative voters were backing Trump, compared to 76 percent supporting Graham.

We are talking about fairly small differences here, so I don’t think there is a clear and obvious explanation for why Graham is running behind Trump. But here is some semi-informed speculation about why some Republicans and conservative-leaning independents who like Trump might be wary of Graham. In the past, Graham has aligned himself with decidedly…

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