This evening, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley will give the Republican response to President Obama's State of the Union address. Haley, elected in 2010 as the state's first female and first non-white governor (Haley is Indian-American), was reelected by an impressive 56-41 percent margin in 2014.
More recently, she gained national attention for her leadership in the aftermath of the June 17th mass shooting at Charleston's Emanuel AME church. She showed considerable empathy, attending funerals, comforting victims, and bringing together South Carolina residents in the aftermath of one of the worst tragedies in the state's history. She also displayed adept political skills, using her bully pulpit to lobby the state legislature to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds in Columbia. The Confederate flag was taken down less than one month later, on July 10th.
While some view Haley's speech as an audition for a vice-presidential slot, or perhaps a cabinet post, it is also an opportunity to broaden the GOP base and reach out to minority voters. The lack of support among minority voters, coupled with the country's increasing diversity, continues to trouble the party's political establishment. As South Carolina's Senior U.S. Senator, Lindsey Graham recently noted, Republicans face a "demographic death spiral" if they don't find ways to broaden their political base. Haley's speech represents a key symbolic moment in the party's continued efforts in this area.
Haley's success in South Carolina, along with the state's highly popular junior U.S. Senator, Tim Scott, provides a unique opportunity to study the real-time appeal of minority Republican candidates.
I've collaborated with Winthrop University's Scott Huffmon and Texas Tech University's Seth McKee to investigate the political appeal and electoral coalitions of Haley and Scott. While South Carolina is one of the most conservative places in the country, Haley and Scott have emerged as the state's two most popular political figures.
Using data from The Winthrop Poll, we found convincing evidence that Republicans have wholeheartedly embraced Haley and Scott. Not surprisingly, they had the strongest backing from whites, ideological conservatives, and Tea Party supporters. We also looked closely to determine whether racial attitudes affected support for Haley and Scott. We wondered whether racial conservatives would be less likely to support a minority Republican candidate than racial moderates. However, we found no evidence of a drop-off in support for Haley and Scott among racial conservatives.
However, our research found very little evidence that minority voters have supported minority Republican candidates. According to the October 2015 Winthrop Poll, conducted just before the 2014 General Election, only 12 percent of African-American voters planned to cast a ballot for Scott and just 10 percent said they would vote for Haley. These percentages mirror national trends and continue to present considerable electoral challenges for Republican candidates.
Haley's speech is symbolically important and represents an important step in the GOP's efforts to break the so-called demographic death spiral. However, a true sign of success will occur when Republican candidates embrace policies that appeal to minority voters and no longer rely solely on the support of whites to win elections.
Gibbs Knotts is professor and chair in the department of political science at the College of Charleston.