Can Trump's Anti-Iraq-War Stance Win in South Carolina?
Since Donald Trump condemned George W. Bush for the Iraq war in a South Carolina debate, the conventional wisdom has been that Trump hurt himself badly in a state that tends to heavily favor military intervention in general, and George W. Bush specifically.
Indeed, George W. Bush and the Iraq war remain popular in South Carolina. George W. Bush has an 84 percent approval rating there, and been campaigning there for his brother, Jeb.
Trump claims to have opposed the Iraq war all along. Whether or not he actually opposed the war in 2003 remains unclear, although it is clear that he was not a cheerleader for the war. Nor has his criticism of the war been mild in recent days, calling the Iraq war "one of the worst decisions in the history of the country." It would be a mistake to label Trump as an "anti-war" candidate, but for a voter who's gung ho on military action, Trump leaves much to be desired.
If his remarks on the Iraq War have hurt Trump, the damage appears to be too mild to have shown up much in the polls. According to numerous polls, Trump remains the clear frontrunner for Saturday's primary in South Carolina. Nor have his comments stopped Iraq War veterans from endorsing Trump.
If Trump does manage to win in South Carolina, running on an anti-Iraq War, anti-Bush platform, it will be very remarkable. After all, it's hard to blame establishment commentators for assuming that Trump would be crushed by more militarist candidates in a state that tends to be relentlessly in favor of military intervention. South Carolina nearly always favors the most enthusiastically pro-war candidate.
Moreover, the whole region has tended to favor military spending and military action, so while both Rubio and Cruz are running on platforms designed to outdo each other in terms of enthusiasm for more foreign wars, and more military spending, it will noteworthy indeed if Trump does well in the region.
The South and Military Spending
For decades, the south has been an easy base for support for candidates supporting military intervention, and it was the one region of the country where the America First campaign never gained any traction.
This has been especially reinforced since World War II as military spending has become the foundation of many local economies throughout the region.
When we look at military spending compared to a state's overall GDP, we find that Virginia, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Kentucky are all in the top ten. No other region of the country has local economies so dependent on military spending.
Moreover, countless analyses by political scientists and economists in recent decades have observed the well established connection between military spending in a region, and a proportional support for military action in terms of public policy. In recent contribution on this front was The American Warfare State by Rebecca U. Thorpe. Thorpe's book deserves a review all of its own, but in essence, her finding are this: states where military spending play a more prominent role in the local economy tend to have voters who support more military spending and military action in general.
This is different from saying that "more military spending" leads to more pro-military voting. After all, the total amount of military spending that takes place in California, for example, is immense. The distinction is that California's overall economy is huge and doesn't rely on military spending at all for its local tax revenues or economic core. That's not the story in, say, Mississippi or South Carolina, where military spending is a significant part of the state's overall economy. The initial spending by the federal government supports whole service economies in and around military bases, and also leads to local tax revenues and much more.
It's easy to see how people in these places will inevitably conclude that "what's good for the military is what's good for me." After all, as James Bovard recently explained, governments are adept at buying voter support with taxpayer dollars.
On the other hand, being pro-war isn't necessarily the same thing as being pro-military, although we're often told by interventionists and media pundits that they are inseparable. Trump has perhaps found a way to break through on this issue and win the favor of pro-military voters while simultaneously calling the Republican Party's central project of the last 20 years one of "the worst decisions" ever made.