Gingrich Wins a Smashing Victory in South Carolina. Can Romney Recover?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Jan. 21 2012 11:00 PM

Romney Newtered

Gingrich wins a smashing victory in South Carolina. How can Romney recover?

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GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney suffers a big loss in the South Carolina primary.

Photograph by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty.

South Carolina went “Grandiose.” Newt Gingrich, who embraced that word when it was used to describe him, won the Republican primary handily today with around 40 percent of the vote. Mitt Romney, who had been ahead by double digits in polls after the New Hampshire primary, received only 27 percent. Given Gingrich's overwhelming victory, it may be difficult for him to find a historical figure important enough to compare himself to.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Mitt Romney's smooth trip to the nomination has been interrupted. He has lost two of three contests. Voters have ratified the long-standing doubts about him. The non-Romney voters who had been splitting their vote now seem to have settled on Gingrich.

The surge we’ve all been sensing for Gingrich seems to be real. There were a lot of late deciders—53 percent—and 44 percent of them went for Gingrich. The debates did it. Sixty-five percent of voters said the debates mattered in helping them make their decision, and half of those voters went for Gingrich.

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Republicans have long scoffed at Barack Obama's rhetorical skills, but in South Carolina, exit polls make it clear that Gingrich owes his surge to rhetoric. The Romney and Santorum campaigns have hammered him on his volatile personality and his chaotic leadership style. They’ve said that voters would be sorry in the fall when Gingrich loses to President Obama, or if Gingrich wins and then flames out in office. Those attacks didn’t work.

Mitt Romney has been making two points about his candidacy. He is the more electable candidate, and he can turn the economy around. According to exit polls, Gingrich ate away at these two core parts of the Romney pitch. Forty-five percent of South Carolina voters said beating Obama was the most important attribute they wanted in a candidate. Gingrich won that group with 48 percent of the vote to Romney's 39 percent. For the 63 percent who said the economy was the most important issue, Gingrich beat Romney 39 to 33.

Sixty-three percent of the voters said they were evangelical Christians or born again. They went for Gingrich decisively, giving him 43 percent of the vote. That's the same share of the vote that Mike Huckabee won in 2008. He is an ordained minister. Newt Gingrich has been married three times and admitted committing adultery—and his second-wife's accusations about his request for an "open marriage" resurfaced days before the vote. None of that mattered.

Mitt Romney, who has been married to his first and only wife for more than 40 years, got only 22 percent of the evangelical vote, half of Gingrich's share (though double his 2008 performance).
 
Evangelical voters did not see Gingrich's personal shortcomings as an impediment. Neither did women, who also voted for him over Romney. South Carolina Republican strategists have scratched their heads a little at this. "These are people who judged Bill Clinton," said one Republican strategist about social values voters. But the consensus view among those in GOP politics here is that Republican voters had already discounted Gingrich's personal failings. One poll also suggested that Republicans did not believe the latest charges from Gingrich's ex-wife.