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Comparing The Carolinas

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The South Carolina Republican primary is tomorrow. It's the best chance for southern voters, especially southern conservatives, to weigh in on who will become the Republican candidate for President. One reason South Carolina is so important is because it's so different from Iowa and New Hampshire.

But that doesn't mean it's unique. In 2008, election researcher Nate Silver came up with something he called State Similarity Scores. On his blog five-thirty-eight, he concluded that South Carolina and North Carolina are more alike politically than any other two states in the country.

That motivated reporter Dave DeWitt to explore how the Carolinas compare.

Dave DeWitt: North and South Carolina share a history, a lengthy border, and half a name. Both states know a thing or two about hurricanes and hot, humid summers. They share a secessionist and segregated past, and a similar idea of justice: each state has executed exactly 43 prisoners since 1976.

Like siblings born the same year, the two states scrap all the time - over businesses looking to relocate or which state has the right to call itself simply "Carolina".

In this never-ending one-upsmanship, residents consider everything. Even which state has produced the better comedian. South Carolina's entry? Stephen Colbert…

Stephen Colbert: I am proud to announce that I am forming an exploratory committee to lay the groundwork for my possible candidacy for the president of the United States of South Carolina. I'm doing it!

And the comedic pride of North Carolina - Zach Galifianakis…

Zach Galifianakis: This woman said to me the other day, Zach, 'I like your beard' and I said, look, I'm Greek this isn't a beard it's part of my eyebrow.

Galifianakis doesn't do much political comedy, but he's from a political family - his uncle Nick lost the 1972 race for U.S. Senate to Jesse Helms in a divisive campaign. It was hardly Helms's last. This is the infamous "white hands" TV ad he ran against Harvey Gantt, an African-American, in 1990.

TV AD: You needed that job and you were the most qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that fair?

South Carolina had its own influential and controversial conservative, Strom Thurmond.

Strom Thurmond: I'm sick and tired of the federal government trying to dictate to the states and threatening to withhold funds of if the states don't do what the federal government wants.

Thurmond famously switched his party affiliation from democrat to republican in 1964 - and endorsed Richard Nixon four years later.

Ferrell Guillory: That was crucial to Nixon's emergence.

Ferrell Guillory is on the journalism faculty at UNC Chapel Hill and the co-author of a series of reports called The State of The South.

Guillory: And then the Nixon administration developed a Southern strategy to win over conservative whites who had voted for George Wallace the segregationist.

That southern strategy found fertile ground in South Carolina - and set it on a different political course from North Carolina. As South Carolina stayed conservative and became more Republican, North Carolina retained its democratic past, even as the conservative movement grew.

Guillory says this trend was aided by growing differences in the states' urbanization, size, in-migration from northern states, and breadth of poverty. And underneath it all, was race.

Guillory: It's kind of a general rule of thumb when you think about the south is that the more extensive the black population, the more conservative the white population tends to be.

That's true when comparing the Carolinas. South Carolina's black population is 8 percentage points higher than North Carolina's. And South Carolina is as conservative as conservative gets. Remember this?

President Obama: The reforms I am proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally. Joe Wilson: You Lie!

That's South Carolina Congressman and Republican Joe Wilson shouting "You lie" at Democratic president Barack Obama during the 2009 State of the Union address.

A year earlier, President Obama narrowly won North Carolina. He did so thanks to two constituencies that don't exist in significant numbers in South Carolina - moderates and democrats.

That truth is exactly why South Carolina plays an important role with tomorrow's Republican primary, and why North Carolina will get so much attention later in the year.

That should give South Carolina's most famous comedian plenty of time and material to use on his northern neighbor.

Colbert: Last week, a judge struck down a 201-year old law banning unmarried couples from living together in, where else? Liberal enclave North Carolina.

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Feature News Editor. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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