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South Carolina retirees are changing the discussion

Republican presidential candidates are having to address the older population's economic concerns more than religious conservatives' issues.

January 19, 2012|By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times
  • Tom Hughes, a retired Navy chief petty officer, left, greets Maureen Donahue at the Beacon Drive-In restaurant in Spartanburg, S.C. Retirees arguing about how to vote in Saturdays Republican presidential primary are a familiar scene in South Carolina diners these days.
Tom Hughes, a retired Navy chief petty officer, left, greets Maureen Donahue… (Ariana Lindquist, Bloomberg )

Reporting from Mount Pleasant, S.C. — They amble in every morning to the back table, shake hands and sit beneath the sign saying "B.S. Community table," which, depending on whom you ask, either stands for Bible study or another kind of B.S.

This morning, the nine or so people at the diner are talking politics as they lean over cheese-covered grits, thick omelets and triangles of toast covered in butter.

"When I was in the service, I remember when we were worrying about China. Now we're asking them for money?" says Cecil Wright, 84, the eldest member of this group of retirees, shaking his head. Wright, a veteran who later worked as a contractor, supports Newt Gingrich.

"Who did you say you're for? Romney? Oh, my Lord," says Janet Thames, the only woman in the group, as another member of the B.S. Club arrives, shaking hands with the men and kissing Thames on the cheek (The only proper way to greet a lady, they explain).

In any South Carolina diner you might find a similar scene: retirees joking about their golf scores and their grandchildren while arguing about the best candidate in Saturday's Republican presidential primary.

As snowbirds move here for the warm climate and low income taxes, and as military personnel based here start to retire, South Carolina's population is getting older, and as a result, changing the mix of the electorate and the issues candidates must address.

Although the state's religious conservatives still have some sway in the election, the influx of retirees from elsewhere has made fiscal issues rise in importance. That may be one reason Rick Santorum, whose socially conservative message played well with Iowa's evangelical voters, is struggling to gain a foothold here.

"Most of the retirees that are moving to South Carolina … tend to be more economically conservative," said Scott Buchanan, executive director of the Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics. "They're more worried about debt and financial sorts of issues."

The state added 300,000 residents aged 55 to 74 between 2000 and 2010, according to census data, accounting for half of the state's total population gain in that period. AARP estimates that 60% of GOP primary voters in South Carolina are retired. So GOP candidates are finding that South Carolina, rather than Florida, is the first state where they have to specifically court older voters — and confront the minefield of Social Security and the budget deficit. (Many older voters in South Carolina actually came from Florida — so-called halfbacks, who retired to Florida, decided it was too hot, and moved halfway back, to South Carolina.)

The importance of older voters explains why Rick Perry recently stopped at a Sun City retirement community in Fort Mill, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum spoke at another Sun City development in Bluffton, and Mitt Romney held a rally for veterans at an American Legion outpost in Sumter.

The events are often populated by volunteers from AARP, who come early, sit in the front row, and dog the candidates with questions about Social Security.

"This is about the country our children and grandchildren … are going to inherit," Gingrich said at a recent event in Rock Hill. "That's why we're running. We're running because I am really worried about the America they're going to inherit."

Still, candidates have to walk a fine line here: Retirees say that balancing the budget is a top priority, but they also don't want to see cuts to their Social Security benefits. One in five South Carolina residents receives Social Security, and many voters say they worry it's threatened by the deficit.

Members of the B.S. Club say they're worried about the economy, illegal immigration and the size of the national debt. They wonder how the nation is going to start manufacturing things again, and whether Ross Perot is still alive (he is). Many are veterans, and they also want a promise that military spending won't be cut.

"We've got to pay down the debt," says Richard Kirkland, the joker of the group ("We both shot the same thing in golf yesterday: lousy."). "Even if you have to raise taxes. There's no choice. We've got to pay our bills."

"The government should pay back every penny they've taken out of Social Security," said Thames, as a waitress refilled coffee cups and the group passed around a recipe they found particularly silly. "But they definitely have to balance the budget."

The B.S. Club's chosen candidate, this morning at least, is Gingrich (though Kirkland says Gingrich, like most older men, has too much baggage). They like Gingrich's forceful manner and his debate skills, and say he could go up against President Obama and win. But like most of the South Carolina electorate, they're still talking and arguing and listening to whoever stops by Page's Okra Grill to talk to them.

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