Why Were South Carolina Voters So Uninformed?

S.C. media sit out the Democratic primary

When unemployed veteran Alvin Greene won the Democratic nomination for United States Senate in South Carolina with 59 percent of the vote, despite pending criminal charges and a total lack of any apparent campaign effort, media speculation went into overdrive. Could Greene’s win over Vic Rawl have been caused simply by his being placed first on the ballot? Could African-Americans have concluded from the names of the candidates that Greene was also African-American? Could uninformed voters have believed they were casting a ballot for singer Al Green? Or could the result have had a more nefarious cause, such as vote fraud?

What all these “explanations” shared was an assumption of voter ignorance. For example, Tom Jensen, the director of Public Policy Polling, concluded from his firm’s survey results that “it was pretty much completely random who was going to win given that no voters had heard of either of the candidates.” “If there are lots of offices on the ballot,” explained University of South Carolina political science professor Mark Tompkins, “voters don’t necessarily know who they are voting for.”

Few people, however, are asking the most important question: Why were the voters so uninformed? In a major party primary for an office as important as United States senator, the media have a responsibility to cover the election in a way that provides enough information for voters to cast intelligent ballots. How well did South Carolina’s media meet that responsibility?

To answer that question, I went to the Web sites of the major television stations and newspapers in the state. Although all had extensive coverage of the controversy after the vote, few paid any attention to candidates Greene and Rawl when voters most needed to learn about them.

Numerous studies have indicated that an overwhelming majority of the public obtains its information about elections largely from television. Nevertheless, the Web sites for the ABC affiliates in Charleston and Florence, CBS in Columbia and Spartanburg, NBC in Columbia and Greenville, and Fox in Columbia and Greenville do not seem to have run a single story about the Democratic primary candidates. Only WCSC in Charleston had any coverage, and it was merely two sentences in an Associated Press roundup story about the primary. It would not have helped voters very much, stating in its entirety, “Former legislator and judge Vic Rawl of Charleston has raised $185,000 since announcing in March. Unemployed military veteran Alvin Greene of Manning has raised nothing.”

South Carolina newspapers didn’t do much better. Either no articles at all or simply a pre-primary roundup like that presented by WCSC was all that primary voters could find in The State (Columbia), the Charleston Post and Courier, the Fort Mill Times, the Myrtle Beach Sun News, the Orangeburg Times and Democrat, and the Union Daily Times. The Thursday prior to the election, the Florence Morning News asked Professor Neal Thigpen to predict the outcomes of each contest. Without elaboration, he responded for the Democratic senate primary, “Rawl.”

Three newspapers each provided a single piece with useful information. Although the Rock Hill Herald had no news articles on the subject, it endorsed Rawl in a detailed editorial that termed Greene “not a serious candidate” whose interview with the editorial board “demonstrated little grasp of the issues.” In contrast, they described Rawl’s long experience in the military and politics, then discussed his general political philosophy, which they believed was “motivated less by ideology than by practicality.” Even though this was one of the few sources of helpful information, the only specific issues it mentioned were Rawl’s support for climate change legislation and his positive views on the health care reform bill.

The two news articles I found were in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal and the Greenville News. The former, an Associated Press piece titled “DeMint facing nominal opposition in primary,” spent its first fourteen paragraphs discussing a primary challenge to DeMint by Susan Gaddy that the article suggested had little chance of success. Author Seanna Adcox then turned to Rawl, describing how he differed with DeMint on such issues as health care reform and offshore oil drilling. Professor Thigpen was quoted as believing that, even though Rawl’s general election prospects were “slim,” as a “more moderate, old-time Democrat” he might do better than expected. Greene was quoted as declaring he would focus on job creation and was described as a graduate of the University of South Carolina who spent thirteen years on the military.

Only the Greenville News, in a May 25 article by staff writer Liv Osby, provided a detailed look at the issue positions of each candidate, based on interviews with both. After brief descriptions of the candidates’ backgrounds, each was asked what he believed were the major issues; both were quoted on such important topics as the economy, whether to extend the Bush tax cuts, education, the health reform bill, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, immigration, and Social Security.

It seems clear that, for the most part, the news media failed to provide voters with the information necessary to cast an informed vote in the primary. The two-thirds or more of the electorate that obtains its news about elections from television knew little more than the occupations and residences of the two candidates, if that. Newspapers in the state capital of Columbia and the next largest city of Charleston did no better. Only in the smaller cities of Greenville, Rock Hill, and Spartanburg was useful information on the background and issue positions of Rawl and Greene available to newspaper readers. In those cities, voters who did not read the single article published were out of luck.

Even these three articles depended entirely on questions asked of the candidates, with no independent investigations of their backgrounds. The day after the primary, when Alvin Greene suddenly was thrust into the media spotlight, it was quickly and easily discovered that he had been charged with showing obscene material to a college student and that his discharge from the military although honorable, was not voluntary. Surely this could have been discovered and written about with minimal effort when voters could have had a chance to decide its relevance.

South Carolina’s media apparently decided that because Senator DeMint’s reelection is a virtual certainty, there was no reason to spend much effort or devote much valuable news space to the primary to decide his challenger. The result was a failure to do their duty to the public.

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Bruce E. Altschuler is professor of political science at SUNY Oswego and a regular political analyst for WRVO-FM. His books include LBJ and the Polls and Running in Place: A Campaign Journal.