“Jeb Bush shows strength across many of the poll’s crosstabs and was the choice of 22 percent of the respondents compared to his 16 percent in our November poll,” said Doug Kaplan, the president of Gravis Marketing, the Florida-based polling company.
Bush polled lead among Catholics with 18 percent to former Arkansas governor Michael D. Huckabee’s 15 percent, he said. But, among evangelical Christians Huckabee outpolled Bush 21 percent to 18 percent. Bush is a convert to Catholicism and Huckabee is an ordained Southern Baptist minister.
When the respondents are broken up by education, Bush beats Huckabee 19 percent to 17 percent, he said. Bush was the choice of 50 percent of voters with some high school and 21 percent of voters with post-graduate degrees, followed New Jersey Gov. Christopher J. Jr., with 12 percent of post-grad voters.
Huckabee led with 21 percent of high school graduates, Kaplan said.
Keith Appell, a political consultant with the Washington-based CRC Public Relations, said he is watching the race for the White House develop.
“This is wide open as the top three are all big question marks. Christie still has investigations hanging over his head, Jeb Bush isn’t running yet and there are a lot of problems awaiting him if he does,” he said.
“While there’s a reservoir of support for Huckabee left over from 2008 there are other conservatives likely to run who could strongly appeal to many of his voters,” he said. “None of this is really solid support and anyone who starts to get traction nationally and gets down there repeatedly to campaign can make a big move.”
“In the GOP Senate primary survey, Graham polled 60 percent against the field compared to his 54 percent in our November poll,” he said. In the case that no candidate receives more than 50 percent in the June 10primary, the two top vote getters run in a runoff primary.
Jackie Bodnar, a spokeswoman for FreedomWorks, the Washington-based Tea Party information and logistics hub, said, “We are starting to see the Senate race take shape, but it’s still early.”
Bodnar said the field of challengers is still taking shape and shaking out.
“The filing deadline is not until the end of the month, and I think that’s where you’re going to see a lot of the grassroots start to unify around a single challenger,” she said. “Unity is going to be key in taking on an entrenched Beltway operator like Lindsey Graham.”
Tate Zeigler, a spokesman for the Graham campaign, said, “It’s too early for a poll to mean much – even this one showing Senator Graham 50 points ahead and getting 64 percent of the Republican vote.”
Zeigler said the senator is still campaigning serviously.
“He continues traveling to every corner of the state, hosting events, listening to the concerns of voters, opening campaign offices, and talking about his record,” he said.
“Senator Graham is a conservative, a problem-solver, and a leader who gets things done,” he said. “We’re running a grassroots campaign which is attracting new supporters each and every day and plans to peak on June 10 when Republican voters go to the polls.”
Appell said South Carolina Republicans do not yet know the candidates running against Graham.
“The numbers show Graham on the wrong side of some key issues and other polls over the past year have shown his job approval numbers dropping steeply,” he said.
“The primary isn’t until June and there’s a runoff if Graham can’t get above 50. While he can take some comfort from these results he’s not out of the woods yet,” he said. “He’s vulnerable, but someone has to start putting lead on the target before too long.”
Kaplan said after Graham, respondents chose state Sen. Bright Lee, 10 percent; liberal operative Nancy R. Mace, 7 percent; Richard Cash, 4 percent and lawyer and Afghanistan War veteran Bill Connor, 2 percent.
“In our November poll, Bright was also at 10 percent,” he said. The undecided moved from 23 percent in November to 17 percent in March.
Bright said he did not have confidence in the poll results.
“These findings really stretch credulity,” he said. “There’s not a group of Republicans outside of the Senate dining room where Lindsey Graham is in the 60s.”
The state senator said, “Even Graham’s own polls show him closer to 50 percent. This is not at all consistent with any other polling, nor with what our campaign is hearing on the grassroots level.”
Michael Stevens, a campaign spokesman, said a February poll conducted by Ohio-based Wenzel Strategies had Graham at 45 percent and Bright at 17 percent.
The poll did not included former police officer and political new comer David Feliciano. Feliciano entered the race as the poll was in the field and made headlines at a March 13 press conference when he referred Graham as “ambiguously gay.”
In the report posted at thestate.com, Bright, Cash and Connor called the press conference to announce that in the case of a runoff primary, each man pledged to support whomever is Graham’s opponent. Feliciano had not signed the pledge, but showed up at the conference to make his statements.
Professor Gibbs Knotts, the chairman of the College of Charleston political science department, said Huckabee benefits from name recognition and finished a close second to Sen. John S. McCain III (R.-Ariz.) in the 2008 South Carolina primary.
Knotts said the poll shows that the state’s Republicans are less excited by Tea Party favorites Sen. R. Edward “Ted” Cruz (R-Texas) and Sen. Randall H. “Rand” Paul (R.-Ky.)
The professor said Graham also benefits from name recognition and more than $8 million in his campaign fund.
“He is also a very strong general election candidate and has the ability to do very well among moderates and independents,” he said. “He has a record of reaching across the aisle. The national parties have become more polarized and South Carolina has moved more solidly towards the Republican Party, so this has made him more vulnerable.”
In a possible runoff, Knotts said he thinks Mace has a shot. “Mace is an interesting candidate. She’s raised some money and she has an interesting personal story as the first female gradate from the Citadel.”
Professor Scott E. Buchanan, who teaches political science at The Citadel and the executive director of The Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics, said the state’s population is growing and the political leanings of its residents are a function of geography.
“The biggest thing that surprises most outside observers is how much the South Carolina population is growing because of retirees or those coming here for jobs, Boeing, BMW, Michelin, Amazon, and others,” he said. “Most of these new residents are non-Southerners. They typically are Republican but more of the economic variety.”
Native white South Carolinians are typically more conservative on social issues, he said.
“The Chris Christie support is partially name recognition, partly Christie’s bravado, and partly a function of people from New York and New Jersey who have settled in the state,” he said.
“The other factor in state politics is the division between the coastal areas, Charleston, Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head, and the Upcountry, Greenville-Spartanburg and York County, which is a suburb of Charlotte, he said. “The Lowcountry tends to be more focused on economics; the Upcountry on social issues.”