GOP Race Is Now a Tossup

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 sentiment among evangelical voters.