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.

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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