The South Carolina primary is known for being brutal and influential. This year was no exception. According to polling data, Mitt Romney was 10 points ahead of Newt Gingrich just four days before the South Carolina primary, yet when the final votes were tallied, Romney lost to Gingrich by 12.5 points. A 22.5 point swing in just four days.
How did this happen and what does it mean for Florida and beyond?
First, there were two debates in the five days preceding the South Carolina primary. During those two contests, Gingrich was able to convince voters that he was the most electable and most conservative candidate. With the help of Rick Perry’s endorsement, he also assured enough evangelical voters that despite his myriad personal failings he was acceptable to them.
Newt Gingrich also convinced South Carolinians that he is the candidate most likely to defeat President Barack Obama. According to exit polls, 45% of the voters said the most important quality in a candidate was the ability to beat Obama. Gingrich won 51% of those voters, Romney 37%. Compare these numbers to those asked the same question in New Hampshire and you see a striking difference: 63% of those voters picked Romney and only 12% picked Gingrich. While New Hampshire and South Carolina are worlds apart in demographics and culture, this does not account completely for the change. Gingrich controlled the narrative brilliantly, from his humiliating loss in the Granite State to his remarkable victory in South Carolina.
All of these GOP debates have been short on real policy ideas that might actually get through the dysfunctional Congress, and the South Carolina ones were no exception. The Republican agenda across the board appears to be “cut spending”, “repeal Dodd-Frank”, “repeal Obamacare”, “get government out of the way” and “let the market work”. In other words, let’s get back to the sunny days of spring 2008, right before we realized the consequences of those exact policies. Lehman Brothers, anyone?
It’s hard to conclude that voters woke up and realized the brilliance of Gingrich’s well-formed policy platform. What did happen is the very conservative, evangelical, white, southern crowd came to see Gingrich as one of them and as a real fighter. In fact, Gingrich is indeed one of them, a white conservative from neighboring Georgia (Although he is technically not an evangelical, as he converted to the Catholicism of his third wife).
Gingrich labeled Obama repeatedly as the “food stamp president”, which worked perfectly in that crowd. These voters saw in Gingrich someone who would call Obama (not a nameless economic recession) to account for the unacceptable rise in the food stamp rolls under his administration. Romney’s attacks on Obama have been far more tame: he calls the president a nice man but “clueless” (Of course, the whole “food stamp” line of reasoning is absurd, as documented in this cnn.com article).
Gingrich’s rant heard around the world against John King, the CNN debate moderator on Thursday, after being asked to comment on his ex-wife’s allegations also provided a perfect platform. In his response to the question, Gingrich successfully slammed the “media” and “elites” for hijacking and manipulating the political process. While Gingrich’s opponents in the GOP establishment were painfully reminded of the former Speaker’s tactics, to the average voter this seemed like a guy who really would take the gloves off when campaigning against Obama (And how bizarre has the rhetoric become when a guy who makes $3 million a year and is the former Speaker of the House rails against “the elites”? It’s hard to be more “elite” than Newt Gingrich.).
If Gingrich goes on to clinch the nomination, these voters will likely be disappointed when they realize that this type of vapid, vitriolic reasoning does not play well with independent voters in a general election. While many Americans in the middle may be disillusioned by Obama, they will not likely leave the campaign of “hope” for that of “despicable”.
The consequences of Gingrich’s enormous win in South Carolina are becoming clear. Just 3 days before that primary, Romney was winning in Florida by 18 percentage points. After South Carolina, he is losing to Gingrich by 7.4 points in Florida. Florida is a much more diverse state than South Carolina and closer demographically to the U.S. as a whole. If Gingrich actually wins Florida, there is simply no reason to believe that he won’t be able to win the GOP nomination after all.
Expect Romney and his super-PACs to hit hard in Florida and get personal. If a barrage of negative campaigning doesn’t work for Romney, we can look for real fireworks during the GOP convention in Tampa this summer. The stalwarts of the Republican party are apparently getting so nervous about a Gingrich candidacy, they are already quietly discussing the plans for a “brokered convention”.
Ironically, just a few weeks ago these same power-players were so worried about the candidacy of Mitt Romney they were trying to figure out how to nominate anyone else. Now that Gingrich is ascending, they may come to regret not fully endorsing the “moderate from Massachusetts” much earlier.
The opinions contained in this column are solely those of the writer.
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