The dramatic turn of events in the past week in the GOP race suggest that, after Newt Gingrich’s decisive win in South Carolina on Saturday, Mitt Romney is no longer the presumptive nominee who will outlast his foes.
The exit polls, consisting of interviews with almost 2,400 voters, indicate a win of 12 percentage points for Gingrich, a remarkable turnaround in a race in which Romney led by ten points five days ago. The popular vote tally indicates Gingrich may win by even more than that. Gingrich, who has been written off twice already in the GOP race, will now carry a lot of momentum into the next contest in Florida on January 31. He may also win all or nearly all of the South Carolina delegates to the GOP convention, as Romney now leads in only two counties.
Remarkably, Gingrich’s win can be attributed at least in part to one group of voters who normally would not vote for the more conservative candidate — those who view Romney’s background as an investor negatively. Among the 28% of South Carolina voters who held this anti-private equity sentiment, Gingrich beat Romney by 50% to 3%. Until Newt Gingrich’s “super Pac” started airing a 3-minute version, as well as the 27-minute version of a hit piece on Bain Capital, the topic had not become an issue in the almost year-long GOP nomination campaign.
While most analysts on Saturday night attributed Gingrich’s comeback to his strong debate performance on Monday and again on Thursday, particularly his passionate dressing down of CNN debate moderator John King in the second of the debates, it is apparent that the Bain smear campaign also worked very effectively. Mitt Romney’s super Pac ran negative ads focusing on Gingrich’s record both in Congress and since he left Congress that eliminated Gingrich’s lead in Iowa. Gingrich seems to have repaid the “favor” with his attacks on Romney’s record at Bain. The success of the negative ad messaging suggests that we are in for a lot more of this in the GOP race, as well as in the general election campaign to follow.
One other Gingrich message seems to have resonated with South Carolina voters: that Mitt Romney was a Massachusetts moderate. Romney won a small plurality of those who described themselves as moderate or liberal, but was trounced among those who consider themselves conservative. Of the 14% of voters who said the most important factor was nominating a “true conservative,” Romney won 2% of the votes, Gingrich 37%, and Santorum 34%. It is a certainty that Romney’s opponents will be hammering all the way to the convention in Tampa that Romney is not a conservative. In states where only Republicans can vote, this message will work even better. Also, the regional bias — Gingrich from neighboring Georgia, Romney from Massachusetts — was certainly not an assist for Romney in the Palmetto State.
In what can only be described as cognitive dissonance, or willful blindness, of the 27% of voters who stated that the religious beliefs of the candidate matter a great deal, Gingrich won 45%, Romney 9%. Apparently, at least one of the Ten Commandments does not seem to matter to those who think a candidate’s religious beliefs matter. In essence, Gingrich pulled off a remarkable feat in the last ten days — he has won a GOP primary in a conservative state by running ads and campaigning in a way that normally appeals only to left wing, anti-capitalist critics, and skated by his history of adultery by riding a wave of MoveOn.org-type sentiment among evangelical voters.
Liberal voters excused Bill Clinton’s peccadillos since they liked his positions on most issues. Religious conservatives seemed willing to ignore Newt Gingrich’s history since they like his anger at the media, and expect him to thrash Barack Obama in presidential debates. One question not posed in the exit poll interviews, since it would likely not be answered honestly, was whether Romney’s Mormon faith was the real turnoff to evangelicals and others who believe a candidate’s religious beliefs matter a great deal.
In any case, all polls in states with upcoming contests, as well as national polls, are now meaningless. Romney held a twenty-point lead over Gingrich in Florida, but that survey was taken before this week’s South Carolina debate. As numbers maven Nate Silver argues, Florida may well be a tossup race after South Carolina. Romney led Gingrich by 37% to 14% at the start of the week, and by 31% to 23% on Saturday. After Gingrich’s big win, the national numbers could well be about even by Monday. There is no reason why Florida would be very far from the national numbers. One factor that favors Romney in Florida is that his organization has encouraged early voting, and Romney may have a big lead among those who have already voted. If everyone else is equally divided between Gingrich and Romney, Romney could win by his early banking of votes in Florida.
Other than a few caucus states, Florida is the last big primary contest for a month. As such, its importance is greatly magnified. Either Romney or Gingrich will carry the winner’s mantle for a month, and this topsy-turvy race, with candidates surging and then dropping off rapidly, will get a breather.
The absence of scheduled debates after Florida will take away what has been Gingrich’s strongest campaign weapon. It also will provide some time for Romney to refocus his campaign, which has been sputtering all week. Romney seemed unprepared to defend his Bain record, and his failure to release his tax returns seemed to suggest to some that he was embarrassed about what was in them. (Note: Romney announced on Sunday morning that he would release his tax returns on Tuesday.)
If Romney becomes the nominee, he will likely not have to deal with the amateurish and wildly inaccurate 27-minute anti-Bain video that Gingrich supporters have run, but he will see clips of Jon Huntsman, Rick Perry, and Newt Gingrich attacking Bain, and calling him a vulture capitalist. Not only has Romney slipped off his glide path to the nomination, but if he becomes the nominee, he will now be much more vulnerable to the inevitable class warfare arguments in the general election.
Newt Gingrich, who has the highest negatives of any GOP candidate among those who are not Republicans (many of whom will need to support a GOP candidate to get that candidate elected), will now have a chance to use his stature as a serious contender to try to smooth out some of the rough edges. The fact is that both Romney and Gingrich now have a real shot at being the nominee. Each has strengths and obvious weaknesses. Their race, which could turn into a regional faceoff of sorts (Gingrich strong in the South, Romney in the North), will not end quickly.