COLUMBIA, S.C.—The result came in at 7:02, five minutes after I arrived at Newt Gingrich's victory party. "Don't Stop Believing'" was pulled off the sound system to allow a local TV feed to share the news. This was how crowded it was.
Media, and some supporters, and less than half of the room full. The ultra-desirable problem of the early call.
7:20: Exit polls: Get 'em here. The first things that leap out at me:
- For 60 percent of voters, religious beliefs mattered "a great deal." Gingrich, a Catholic, won those voters in a rout—46 percent. Romney, a Mormon, won 19 percent. Draw your conclusions.
- Forty-five percent of voters ranked "can defeat Obama" as the supremo quality they want in a nominee. Gingrich won them over Romney, 51-37. Why? Tony Shipley, a Tennessee state representative who runs Newt's campaign there, explained it to me. "He will LACERATE Obama in a debate. He will absolutely ANNIHILATE him."
- Sixty-six percent of voters approved of Nikki Haley, the governor who endorsed Romney and campaigned next to him. They voted for Gingrich, 42-29.
- The least shocking result: Two-thirds of voters said that the debates were "a factor" in their votes. They broke 50-22 for Newt.
7:40: I run into Taylor Mason, Newt's 20-year old "low country" field director. He worked for Michele Bachmann's campaign for nine months, and the day she dropped put, he got calls from the Romney, Santorum, and Gingrich campaigns, asking him to join up.
"I went online and looked at all their economic plans," he said. "Romney's plan wasn't any different from Obama's."
He joined Gingrich and hustled for 18 days. During that time, he says, he'd get calls from the Romney campaign, asking if he was sure -- they really did need organizers. And so, he got fairly confident.
8:10: Buddy Witherspoon, a former RNC committeeman who ran a hopeless primary campaign against to Sen. Lindsey Graham in 2008, arrives at the party. His Gingrich support had been quiet. "When the race came down to two people it was clear who I had to get behind." Witherspoon had challenged Graham on immigration; I asked if he was okay with Gingrich's idea of allowing people who'd been in the country for 25 or more years to become citizens if a panel of their peers okayed it. "I don't think that will remain his position," he said. "There'll probably be a look at that."
9:05: Newt is introduced as the next president of the United States.
9:25: Newt takes the stage after a long, confused DJ interlude, with multiple plays of "American Ride," one of "Don't Stop Believin'," one of "Song 2," and finally one of "Only in America."
9:45: I have found myself next to the loudest person at the Newt party, who yells after after second or third applause line. Gingrich says that Ron Paul is right about the Fed...
"And the Bilderbergs!"
He will challenge Obama to seven debates...
"Wipe the floor with him, Newt!"
10:24: Some perspective. Here was the county-to-county vote in 2008:
And here's 2012.
What the pretty picture means: Gingrich will net either 25 or 22 of all 25 delegates -- Romney's only hope to win 3 is a strong performance in the low country district that includes Beaufort and Charleston counties.