As voters in South carolina turn out to cast their ballots in the 2020 primary, we look back at the much dirtier contest in 2000
By Kaleena Fraga
Democrats slung mud during last week’s debate. It wasn’t pretty—two hours of arm waving, raised voices, and crosstalk. But the candidates largely stuck to the issues. They attacked each other on health care, tax returns, foreign policy, and gun control. The barbs rarely became personal.
Twenty years ago, political attacks in South Carolina meant to mortally wound—and would, in fact, spell the end of John McCain’s 2000 bid for the presidency.
Smears in South Carolina: The 2000 Primary
John McCain arrived in South Carolina in 2000 with a spring in his step. His campaign had surged to victory in New Hampshire, snatching a 19-point win over George W. Bush. Bush had won in Iowa (McCain skipped the caucus there) but political commentators noted that: “[Bush] got a good victory, but not a blowout.”
In other words, Bush’s nomination was far from certain. McCain’s strong performance in New Hampshire threatened to upset the whole thing.
As the two candidates began to campaign in South Carolina, a trickle of attacks began. They claimed that McCain had not accomplished much in the Senate and that his values did not match up with conservatives in South Carolina. (A perception not helped by McCain’s statement that the Confederate flag was “offensive” and “a symbol of racism.”)
It didn’t take long for the trickle to become a tidal wave. Soon, South Carolinians were getting calls asking if they “would be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if… he had fathered an illegitimate black child?” People began to find leaflets on their cars with the same accusation.
The McCains did have a nine year old daughter with darker skin than their other children—a girl they had adopted from Bangladesh.
The attacks continued. They declared that John McCain had committed treason while a POW in Vietnam. Or that his time there had made him mentally unfit for office. They sneered that he was a homosexual—and that his wife was a drug addict.
At a town hall in Spartanburg, SC, a woman stood up and said that her 13 year old son had taken a call from a pollster, who told him that McCain was a liar and a cheat. “‘My son had admired you, and now he doesn’t know what to believe.”
McCain left the town hall visibly shaken. He told his campaign to pull all negative ads. Not that his attempts to fight back had worked—Republicans in South Carolina became enraged when McCain dared to compare Bush to Clinton, grouping them together as dishonest men.
His campaign felt powerless to stop the attacks. Any response risked putting a spotlight on a smear. And—in any case—it was impossible to tie the Bush campaign to the mudslinging.
In the end, McCain lost in South Carolina.
He dropped out of the race less than a month later, citing weak performances in the subsequent contests.
Today’s campaign has remained civil by comparison. Attacks are more likely to be about tax returns or NDAs than illegitimate children or treason.
But South Carolina still has the potential to bury a candidate. A victory in the first contest of the South retains its significance. And with Super Tuesday around the corner, we could see certain campaigns end tonight—or in the next few days.
No dirty tricks required.