The “elite media” isn’t running stories about the personal scandals of those other guys, because those scandals don’t exist. That wasn’t the point: Gingrich was saying that all criticism of Republicans from the media should be suspect. He expanded on that in his victory speech. The hated elites, he warned, “have been trying for half century to force us to quit being American and become some other kind of system." He knew it, and on this night in South Carolina, the voters knew it too.
Before Gingrich got to the Hilton, I drove from Charleston to Columbia, attempting to find his people. It was easy. The Gingrich voter proudly announced who he’d voted for, saying that he made up his mind in the last week, or after the last debate. (Exit polls backed this up: Voters who decided in “the last few days” went 44-22 for Newt over Romney.) After a while, the only differences between their endorsements were the verbs they used to describe what Gingrich would do to Barack Obama in debates.
In Charleston, a voter named Jayne Harmon claimed that Gingrich would “dismantle” the president.
In Monck’s Corner, I learned that Gingrich would “humiliate” him. In Columbia, I was told that Obama would be “lacerated” or “annihilated.” When Gingrich spoke, and repeated his promise to challenge Obama to seven debates, a biker named Vincent Sbraccia hoisted his sign and screamed: “Wipe the floor with him! Wipe the floor with him!”
A lot of these people considered Gingrich a genius, or at least a first-class intellectual. But before they went for him, they’d thought Herman Cain—who didn’t pretend to know much—would eviscerate Obama, too. They saw more ads for Gingrich than they’d ever seen for Cain, but they saw yet more TV ads and pieces of mail for Mitt Romney. But Romney, who recites America the Beautiful in his campaign speeches, didn’t convince them that he hated “the elites.” Gingrich did. He’d outdebate Obama because he didn’t accept the notion that Obama was a competent, eloquent president. They didn’t accept it, either.
How many more times can Gingrich pull this off? South Carolina was an usually good state for him—he never made a speech without mentioning that he was a “Georgia conservative”—but not uniquely good. In 2010, the Republican base was anti-elite enough to nominate right-wing outsiders for governor of Maine, Illinois, and Florida; for senator in states from Nevada to Delaware to Kentucky; and for House seats from the Arizona-Mexico border to upstate New York. Some of these people actually won elections. Now that the other, more credible outsider Republicans are out, Gingrich is in a position to win more primaries. After all, the “craziest” result in the South Carolina exit polls was the finding on “electability.” Forty-five percent of Republicans said they were choosing the candidate with the best shot of beating Obama. Fifty-one percent of them voted for Gingrich. He agrees with them. He knows what they know about the president. Of course he can win.
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