It’s official. The all-important New Hampshire primary has been followed by what Stephen Colbert called “the all-important-er South Carolina primary” and Newt Gingrich has blown away any hope that the front-runner might actually get out in front and leave us alone until election-time-proper.
The received wisdom for most the pre-pre-election-race-race was that Mitt Romney, establishment candidate and (reviled) moderate, would ultimately shrug off a series of Not-Romney candidates and come through the primaries a clear winner of the candidacy. That remained the received wisdom for a good two weeks into the actual pre-election-race-race until two things happened – a rich casino owner chipped in a lot of money to fund attacks on Romney’s erm, wealth, and a moderator chose to open a debate with the story of the day about Gingrich’s infidelity. The ads seem to have been successful, Gingrich hammered John King for even thinking about the question, and the rest is history. So after Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, the latest Not-Romney is – Newt Gingrich!
But this is a different kind of surge. Most of the other candidates who surged ahead of Romney’s perpetual 2nd place through the second half of last year did so by, to my untrained eye, being slightly nuts. That is slightly unkind, but it is true that Romney’s failure to excite much enthusiasm was mostly to do with a not-all-that-convincing adherence to a bunch of social conservative tenets (abortion, healthcare and the like) and not for the most part because anybody thought he wouldn’t be a viable or strong candidate. The dichotomy was, for the most part, between the really principled candidates and Romney, the presumably more effective candidate.
Take a look at some exit polls, though, and South Carolina has a different type of story. Sure, Romney got pasted among evangelical Christians and Tea Party supporters. Among voters who said that “being a true conservative” was the most important quality in a candidate, Romney pulled 2% of the vote (barely pipping Rick Perry who has withdrawn from the race) to Gingrich’s 37%. But of people most worried about budget deficits and the economy, Gingrich still won – on roughly the same 40% to 30% split that he had overall. Those issues, supposedly Romney winners, don’t seem to have had any effect in favour of him.
Even more surprising, among the voters who stated that ability to defeat Obama was the most important quality in a candidate – that is, the quality that most people had presumed would ultimately carry Romney to the nomination – Gingrich took 51% to Romney’s 37%. For those who thought ‘having the right experience’ was most important – the quality Romney’s business background was supposed to ensure him – he pulled 34% and Gingrich pumped him with 49%. So both those issues not only didn’t help Romney, but actually seemed to favour Newt.
That means that the two things most central to Romney’s candidacy actually worked against him. That means what we saw before Christmas – the contest against Obama taking a back seat to a bunch of other conservative issues – isn’t happening here. Gingrich seems to be beating Romney at his own game, which means he won South Carolina not by being Not-Romney but actually by being Newt. That makes his surge significant – not just because it occurred in an actual vote, rather than in last year’s travelling circus, but because it seems to be built on sturdier stuff than the other short-lived rises-and-falls.
Of course all this may well come to mean nothing. Voters outside South Carolina may agree with the conventional line that Romney is better on the economy, better at creating jobs and more likely to beat Obama. He still has, by all reports, far more money and a far more efficient campaign machine, which should help him stem the flow of late-deciding voters against him in South Carolina. And Gingrich’s bellicose debate performances may not be enough to convince Republicans in other, less naturally conservative states that he is best-qualified on the issues that matter.
But South Carolina is a longstanding Republican bellwether, and if the nation follows this primary’s decree that Romney runs not only dead last on social conservatism, but also second on experience and the economy, this could be a very bloody nomination battle indeed.