The primary in South Carolina, on January 21, was supposed to be the moment when Mitt Romney, possibly the least beloved Republican presidential candidate in modern history, clinched the GOP nomination far earlier in the process than anyone before. The former governor of Massachusetts would finally be vindicated, proving every pundit and Tea Party group that doubts his ability to speak to the party base wrong.
Instead, voters in the Palmetto State chose to press the reset button, erasing at once Romney’s perceived front-runner status, propelling Newt Gingrich (who won a whopping 40.4% of the votes against Romney’s 27.8%) to the front of the pack, both in terms of momentum and delegate count, and blowing wide open a race that many thought was a foregone conclusion from the get-go.
It was a veritable rebellion on the part of Republican primary voters in South Carolina. With their ballots, they signaled that they were not about to rubberstamp a decision by the GOP establishment, which had been slowly coalescing around Romney. The returns from the Palmetto State confirm what many have long suspected, that at least a slice of the party base strongly opposes the nomination of a ‘Massachusetts moderate’ and, instead, is still looking for a ‘true conservative,’ someone who can build on the mission of dismantling the federal government in Washington started by the Tea Party-friendly House of Representative in 2011.
The race for the Republican nomination now moves to Florida, one of the most complex and expensive states to campaign in. Three suddenly competitive candidates (in South Carolina, Rick Santorum didn’t capitalize as much as he had hoped to on a week that had been full of good news, but he seems intent on staying in and fighting on) face what could turn out to be a long, drawn-out slog for every last delegate until the national convention this summer.
Romney’s deep pockets and unparalleled on-the-ground organization make him a natural favorite in the Sunshine State, where he must win if he wants to regain the upper hand.
Gingrich’s momentum coming out of South Carolina will ensure that he gets a lot of free media attention, which could help make up for his relative lack of resources (he has barely campaigned in the state so far). To his advantage, the former House Speaker doesn’t necessarily need to carry Florida, unlike Romney. He just needs to offer a convincing performance.
Santorum finds himself in the most vulnerable position, a clear third after South Carolina. He will be under intense pressure from the conservative wing of the GOP to drop out of the race and let the hard right rally behind Gingrich. Therefore, he needs to turn the tables around once again and retake the former House Speaker if he wants to survive past Florida.
What is certain is that, with the stakes growing, the campaign for the Republican nomination is about to turn nastier.
In the hours leading up to the vote in South Carolina, it became clear that Romney, who had been leading all polls for the state until very recently, was in bigger troubles that anybody had predicted.
Saturday’s primary came on the tail of a couple of unconvincing debate performances by the former Massachusetts governor, caught off-guard on the issue of his tax returns, which he has long been opposed to releasing. Seizing the opportunity, his rivals began pummeling him for it, claiming he was cheating Republican voters by keeping crucial pieces of information from them.
An aggressive campaign launched by the other contenders for the GOP nomination attacking him for his past work at the private equity firm Bain Capital (Romney was accused of being a “job destructor,” not a “job creator) started paying off.
Finally, the news that he had not won the Iowa caucuses as first reported, but instead had come second after Santorum, made it suddenly and painfully obvious that Romney was going through a rough patch.
Yet, even in a time of crisis, the former Massachusetts governor stuck to his highly scripted, nothing-left-to-chance campaign, appearing aloof and tone-deaf in the eyes of Republican voters that are desperately longing for a real street fighter.
Odds were that Rick Santorum would pick up the votes of disgruntled conservatives. He was emerging from his best week yet, with his belated Iowa victory, the endorsement of a network of Evangelical Christian groups that had met in Texas the previous weekend, and strong debate appearances. But the former senator from Pennsylvania ended up third, receiving only 17% of support.
For today’s very angry GOP voters, who don’t simply want to beat President Barack Obama in November, but would very much like to vanquish him, Santorum might just be an all-too-decent campaigner, both in the way he relates to his Republican rivals and in how he pushes back against the much-hated Obama Administration.
South Carolina, therefore, became Gingrich’s to take, his campaign once again resurrected after it had been left for dead for the umpteenth time this election season. The former House Speaker won all sorts of demographic groups. According to exit polls, he received the support of women, men, the rich, the poor, Republicans, Independents, voters who think the economy should be the next president’s first priority as well as social conservatives. He even grabbed 44% of the votes of self-described Evangelical Christians (so much for Santorum’s Texas endorsement.) He beat Romney in terms of ‘electability’ (the candidate voters think is most likely to defeat Obama) and appears to have carried all but two counties in the state.
What is interesting is that the week leading up to South Carolina had been a mixed bag for Gingrich. On the one hand, Texas Governor Rick Perry dropped out of the race and endorsed him. On the other hand, shadows from his personal past resurfaced, when Marianne Gingrich, the second of his three wives, went on the record saying that the former House Speaker had asked her for an ‘open marriage’ arrangement in order to keep seeing his then lover, now spouse, Callista.
But Gingrich did not bow to the accusations. Instead, he doubled down, unleashing an assault on the “elite media,” a favorite target of his, which, he claimed, have been unjustly attacking Republicans for years in order to defend President Obama.
Gingrich doesn’t refrain from calling the president “incompetent,” “radical,” and “dangerous.” His well-known temper, aggressive attitude — some say intolerant – and visionary outlook — some say self-aggrandizing – have also been in full display in his dogfight with the other Republicans, in which he has been leading the charge against Romney.
Just like the Republican base, Gingrich is furious with anything that smacks of elitism and is not afraid to show it.
Basking in his South Carolina victory, Gingrich headed to Florida Sunday as confident as ever. But the Sunshine State is a very different beast. It is a much larger state with a much more complicated demographic and economic make-up. It is home to an important Hispanic constituency, has suffered acutely from the collapse of the real estate market, and has an unemployment rate of 10% (up to 14% in some Republican-dominated areas.) A traditionally key swing state in primary as well as general elections, Florida also has a history of power-politics, not so much based on retail contact with voters, but rather on expensive media buys and aggressive ad campaigns (it costs approximately $2 million a week to simultaneously advertise in the state’s ten most important media markets).
So far, Romney is the only one who has been actively campaigning here, spending just less than $4 million between TV and mail-in ads. This effort could translate into a partial lead, since Florida allows for early and absentee voting, with over 200,000 ballots (about 10% of the projected overall turnout) already cast. But two televised debates scheduled Monday and Thursday could play to the advantage of Gingrich, who is known to be a particularly effective debater.
Romney, who announced he would finally release some of his tax returns, has already started testing new lines of attack, criticizing Gingrich as an ‘insider’ who spent forty years in Washington and trying to shine new light on the former House Speaker’s eight-year, $1.6 million consulting role for mortgage giant Freddie Mac before the real estate crisis hit (Republican voters blame government-affiliated Freddie Mac, alongside its sister-organization Fannie Mae, for the bubble and subsequent bust.)
Gingrich, who claims he only offered his advice as a “historian,” is likely to continue his all-out assault on Romney, focusing on the former governor’s perceived lack of conservative credentials, his private equity work and history of flip-flopping on a variety of issues.
Santorum will have to make space for himself or get out of the way (Ron Paul, after his fourth-place finish in South Carolina, has also pledged to continue campaigning, but he is thought to have reached his libertarian-based ceiling of support).
Since Ronald Reagan in 1980, every Republican candidate that won South Carolina has gone on to win the nomination. But it has never happened in the history of GOP primaries that three different candidates each won Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. As the race for the nomination moves to Florida, it is anybody’s guess who is going to take the next big step, whether it will be Romney