Evangelical leaders who gathered in Texas to throw their support behind Rick Santorum a week ago also took a hit. Santorum, the choice of those conservative elites, pulled only 19 percent of the evangelical vote. For the 26 percent who said the candidates' religious beliefs mattered a great deal, Santorum was not the favorite. Gingrich beat Santorum 43 percent to 31 percent.
Voters also appeared to discount worries about Gingrich's volatility. Gingrich is a volatile politician. His history tells us that. His campaign so far has told us that. For four days before the vote in South Carolina, the Romney campaign had been highlighting these facts. "Unreliable leader," they called him. Then, the statements from Marianne Gingrich surfaced. It was the kind of unexpected explosion that Gingrich’s rivals had been warning about. Yet it didn’t hurt.
Romney won among "moderate or liberal" voters, those opposed to the Tea Party movement, nonreligious and voters who make over $200k (half of what Romney was paid for speeches). Not exactly the GOP coalition. Romney will have to do a better job pitching the core message of his candidacy and tearing down Gingrich. In his post-election speech, Romney compared Gingrich to Obama. Neither has run a business or a state; Both engage in class warfare and attack free enterprise. "Those who pick up the weapons of the left today will find them used against them tomorrow," said Romney.
The question for Gingrich is now how he turns his shoestring campaign into a bigger operation. In Florida, the next primary state, campaigns have to rely on television, not public appearances. The Speaker will have to rely on a big infusion of cash to compete with the negative ads attacking him. Negative messages are already flooding mailboxes. Gingrich will also have to race to catch up with Mitt Romney's stronger organization. Momentum may overcome those disadvantages.
Gingrich has considerable vulnerabilities that Romney must exploit to convince voters that Gingrich would lose in the general election. The former speaker is unpopular nationally and with independent voters. He is also unpopular in his own party. In New Hampshire exit polls, more than 60 percent said they would not be happy if he were the nominee. National polls show the same thing. In a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, 23 percent of Republicans said they would not support him. Only Ron Paul did worse. Women voters, an important swing voting bloc, do not like Gingrich.
Gingrich's dramatic victory capped a zany few days of politics: Stormy debates, accusations from Newt Gingrich's ex-wife, Rick Perry’s dropout, and a reversal in the Iowa caucus results. With all of that upheaval, it was fitting that on Election Day, severe weather knocked out power at some South Carolina polling places and residents in some counties were under a tornado watch for much of the day. If you live in Florida, you might want to batten down the hatches.
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