Saturday, January 21, 2012

Gingrich Wins South Carolina Primary

Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina Primary on Saturday. Gingrich won 40% of the vote; Mitt Romney came in second with 28%. Rick Santorum, who was contending with Gingrich for the title of chief Anti-Romney, placed a distant third. Though Gingrich's win in South Carolina was anticipated by Elephant Watcher, Gingrich's late momentum took the media by surprise, adding to its effect. Until midweek, most political observers assumed Romney would simply win everything and enjoy a coronation instead of a real contest. Just as the media overreacted to Romney's New Hampshire win and his favorable early polls in South Carolina, the media will also overreact to Gingrich's win in South Carolina. However, there were two important developments that can be seen in South Carolina's results:

South Carolina Primary (99% reporting)
Gingrich -- 40%
Romney -- 28%
Santorum -- 17%
Paul -- 13%

The most important result was that Gingrich soundly beat Santorum. Given that Gingrich has already been ahead of Santorum in the Florida polls, Gingrich will credibly claim the mantle of the chief Anti-Romney. Santorum's support will melt away. Santorum's tie for first in Iowa (where he won a handful more votes than Romney in the recount) is irrelevant; Santorum really needed a big win there and what he did get wasn't enough to build momentum.

In consequence, the primary becomes a two-man race between Romney and Gingrich. But the odds are far from even: For Gingrich to get any further, he needs to make up a lot of ground and either win or place a very close second in Florida. Unlike South Carolina and New Hampshire, Florida is seen as neutral territory. With the Anti-Romney vote united behind one candidate, Gingrich has no excuse for losing Florida. If Romney beats him there, Romney is expected to also win Nevada, Michigan, and perhaps Arizona, which are the next major contests. The media narrative will turn just as quickly against Gingrich as it did in its favor here, and all will declare that "Gingrich only wins in the South."

The other important development in South Carolina is how much Romney improved on his 2008 performance in the state, when he placed fourth with only 15% of the vote. Romney probably won't get much credit for this, since only a week ago the media were expecting Romney to win South Carolina.

But the vital comparison going forward is not how Romney finished compared to early South Carolina polls. The reason why the 2008 comparison is more useful is that Romney came so close to winning the nomination that year: Romney came in second in Iowa, second in New Hampshire (by 5 points), won Nevada, and placed second in Florida (by 5 points). Improving by a half-dozen points--he improved by twice that in South Carolina--would mean victory.

If Gingrich is to become the frontrunner in this race, he must not merely beat Romney in one of Romney's weakest states; Gingrich needs to prove he can beat Romney in the rest of the country. Florida may be his last opportunity.