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Why Is There So Much Mud in South Carolina?

While I’m skeptical that a candidate in a competitive race can simply ignore a character question (we will still have to see whether Viers has a competitive primary), my meeting with the conservative GOP hopeful caused me to step back a bit and wonder about the state’s nasty politics.

Why does politics in the Palmetto State always have to cross the line?

So I called Jon Lerner, a national political consultant who has worked for many prominent South Carolina Republicans.

Lerner, who originally hails from Minnesota, offered an interesting and compelling hypothesis.

“It’s not true that the state’s politics are nastier than other places,” he said, arguing that there tend to be fewer negative TV spots during a campaign than in many other states.

Because most of the action takes place in GOP primaries, and because those primaries often involve multiple candidates, campaigns are hesitant to go too negative on TV before the runoff, he said. I know this dynamic to be true (I’ve seen it many times in many states), because the candidate doing the attacking in a multicandidate race often damages himself as much as the opponent being attacked, thereby allowing a third candidate to finish ahead of both.

That means negative TV attacks are often limited to the briefest-in-the-nation two-week runoff period.

But, Lerner argued, partially because negative TV attack ads are so difficult to use in multicandidate races, “the unethical characters in politics deliver negative information through other means, including unaccountable bloggers, telephone robocalls, small town newspapers owned by partisans and anonymous mailings.”

These other channels tends to be “below the radar” and often relatively inexpensive, making it easier for rumor-mongers and individual bomb-throwers to distribute “information,” regardless of whether it is accurate or considered in good taste.

Of course this explanation, which I found interesting and persuasive, doesn’t explain all of the bad behavior by politicians, political consultants and anonymous political activists that I mentioned earlier. But at least it’s one way of understanding how a state’s political culture can be affected by its politics.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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