Tribe of Newt
The elite-media-hating voters who put Gingrich over the top in South Carolina.
Photograph by Richard Ellis/Getty Images.
COLUMBIA, S.C.—A lone Democratic consultant wandered the halls of the downtown Hilton, gawking at Republicans who had come to fete Newt Gingrich. The consultant had spent his day giving Swedish conservatives a course in local politics. What to tell them about Gingrich? As an expert, he had no idea. As a Democrat, he was blissed out.
“I’ve been saying all year that they’d be crazy not to nominate Mitt Romney,” said the consultant. He scanned the hallway, clogged with people wearing NEWT 2012 buttons or vintage Ronald Reagan swag, zigging toward the room where Gingrich would speak after his huge win in the South Carolina primary. “They’re crazy.”
Who were these crazy people? They were Gingrich voters, Frankensteins stitched together from the parts of other, extinct conservatives. Some of them used to be Herman Cain backers—look, there’s the “Black Hawk Down” hero Mike Steele, a Cain supporter who used to lead the Pledge of Allegiance at Cain rallies. Some were Michele Bachmann fans—look, there’s 20-year-old Taylor Mason, who jumped right from Bachmann’s campaign to Gingrich’s and spent three weeks setting up events in the Low Country. Perhaps they were like the Sciolaros, a family from Kansas who trekked across the country for Rick Perry, frowned when he quit, then signed up with Newt.
Gingrich voters are not, necessarily, crazy about Gingrich himself. In his victory speech—which did, admittedly, come after 15 minutes of frenzied pushing through fans and cameras—the candidate paused from his recycled stump speech lines to add a new and not especially humble brag. Exit polls had revealed that two in three voters made their decision, in part, based on the televised debates. These voters broke 2-to-1 for Gingrich over Mitt Romney. But to say that Gingrich merely outdebated Romney was profoundly, fundamentally wrong.
“It's not that I'm a good debater,” Gingrich said. “It's that I articulate the deepest felt values of the American people.”
This was hilarious, and it was true. Gingrich had gained ground by punishing the media in Monday’s and Thursday’s debates. Fox News’ Juan Williams asked Gingrich if he understood that black voters were insulted when he talked about food stamps; CNN’s John King asked if he had anything to say about a new interview with his ex-wife, Marianne. In both cases, Gingrich isolated the questions and made them about the media. He was not a candidate. He was a vessel for patriotic, Republican rage.
“They would like to attack any Republican,” Gingrich told King. “They're attacking the governor, they're attacking me. I'm sure they'll presently get around to Senator Santorum and Congressman Paul. I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans.”
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.