For those who might have been doing something else Saturday night other than pouring over the results of the South Carolina GOP Primary last night I will let you in on a little secret. Newt Gingrich won. And he won big. South Carolina, instead of confirming the party’s choice for President, repudiated it.
Newt Gingrich walked away with a staggering 12 point victory over Mitt Romney. For Romney who had double-digit leads a week before the primary this has to hurt. There really is no good news for Romney out of South Carolina. According to Fox News exit polls Gingrich won men and women by 16 and 9 points respectively. He won every age group except 18-24 year olds (went to Paul). Gingrich won almost every education group except for post-graduates and only lost among the 5% who make $200,000 or more in the income category.
Gingrich cleaned up among somewhat and very conservative voters, winning clear pluralities. Meanwhile Romney barely edged Gingrich among moderate/liberal voters. Not surprisingly those who claimed a candidate’s religion does not affect their vote went for Romney. But the solid majority who wanted a candidate’s religion to reflect their own backed Gingrich. This is ironic because Gingrich is a Catholic and a solid majority of the state’s GOP voters are Protestant.
Most concerning for the Romney campaign has to be that they were soundly defeated among voters who voted on experience and ability to defeat Obama. Gingrich defeated Romney among these voters by double-digits. Now to be fair, essentially all the bad news leading up to the primary came from Romney, much as in Iowa it was for Gingrich, so voters might have believed that Romney has yet more baggage to come. However, Romney won in IA and NH among these voters and to lose them in South Carolina is quite a reversal.
The bad news for the Romney camp in South Carolina also comes geographically. Historically in South Carolina races there has been a divide between the North and South of the state. The North has consistently voted the opposite of the South (where Charleston is based). This held true as the state transitioned from blue to red. In recent GOP presidential primaries a new regional schism has developed. The more rural areas/counties of the state have voted for the more conservative candidate while the fast growing and coastal counties have tended to go with the more pro-growth, social moderate candidate. That dynamic was shattered last night.
As of this writing Romney is winning only three counties in SC, Richland, Charleston and Beaufort and none by big margins. Gingrich carried every other county in the state. Where Romney was expected to perform strongly Gingrich overtook him. Romney only performed well in urban areas and Gingrich performed well everywhere else.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that Santorum and Paul were in the mix. Santorum finished third with 17% and Paul with 13%. Santorum and Paul were non-factors in many of the coastal counties and not surprisingly ran well in the sparsely populated, rural counties of the state. Behind Gingrich of course.
Santorum and Paul have vowed to stay in the race. For Gingrich, Santorum staying in the race has to be a blow. Santorum will likely split the anti-Romney vote (to what degree is unknown) and hurt Gingrich.
So what can this tell us? First-off, the South Carolina electorate firmly rejected Mitt Romney. Issues of appeal and regionalism aside, Romney was told a firm “No” by the state’s GOP electorate. Second, Romney’s key strengthens were deflected aside. Romney lost voters he had won in IA and NH. Worse off, he lost them on issues he had once staked his claim to the nomination on (experience and ability to defeat Obama). Third, Romney’s vaunted organization was ineffective. Gingrich had effectively no campaign in South Carolina other than his debate performances and a few offices and he won 40% of the vote. Moreover turnout increased from 2008 levels by a significant 26%. The surge Gingrich had towards the end of the race has to be attributed to this increase in turnout. Fourth, Gingrich now has the momentum in the race. This is evidenced by the fact that a day after the primary (Sunday) Romney released his tax returns.
Looking ahead it is unclear how this victory could affect the Florida race. Romney currently leads in the RCP average of polls in Florida by 18.5%. But none of those polls are more recent than the 17th. Romney has invested heavily in Florida knowing it is a big winner-take-all state that gives out 50 delegates. In the days before the South Carolina occurred Romney and his allies were already on the airwaves in Florida attacking Gingrich. Furthermore, Romney’s campaign has been working on early voting and absentee voting for weeks.
Florida will offer a far different dynamic than IA, NH, or SC. Florida is far more urban than any prior states giving Romney an edge. The state also has several pricey media markets, again playing to Romney’s strengths. Florida also has a more educated and moderate GOP electorate than South Carolina or IA. In fact the GOP electorate of Florida more resembles New Hampshire. According to 2008 Florida primary polls 50% of voters had a college education (18% were post-grad) and 39% of the electorate identified as moderate/liberal. In every state prior to South Carolina Romney won college educated voters and even in South Carolina he won post-grad voters and moderates/liberals.
Since 2008 the GOP closed their presidential primary. What impact this could have is unclear considering in the open primary in 2008 80% of participants identified as Republican.
The last factor to consider is the turnaround for the Gingrich campaign. Romney has been there for months while Gingrich, not unlike Santorum after IA, will have to quickly pivot to Florida in a mere 10 days. Gingrich also has to accumulate cash after his SC win and then spend it quickly. But 10 days to set up an infrastructure in Florida is likely asking the impossible. Gingrich’s best shot to capitalize on the momentum from South Carolina will likely come in the debates Monday and Thursday. If he is as impressive in those debates as he was in South Carolina his momentum could overcome even the advantages Romney has built-up in Florida.
The one thing the South Carolina results tell us is the GOP race is still up for grabs and Republicans (especially conservatives) still have issues with Romney. Romney may be able to notch a win in Florida and accumulate 50 delegates, even stall Gingrich’s momentum. But for Romney his issues run far deeper then losing South Carolina.
Caveat: I largely left out what impact Santorum and Paul could have in FL because I assume it will essentially be a two-man race in the state. I have doubts Santorum will dig that deeply into Gingrich’s support even if he stays in until the primary.