Friday, January 20, 2012

South Carolina Primary Tomorrow

The South Carolina Primary will be held tomorrow, and its results are likely to get a lot of attention. For some time now, the media narrative has been that if Mitt Romney wins in South Carolina, the primary will be over. A less-pronounced narrative is that if Newt Gingrich wins South Carolina, the entire race will be transformed dramatically, and that it will become a long, grinding test of wills between the two candidates.

Initially, Romney's strong poll numbers in South Carolina gave many the impression that he was very likely to win there. Even the investors on Intrade for the South Carolina Primary market gave Romney more than a 90% chance to win there at one point.

Elephant Watcher was not convinced. Last week, we examined the probable scenarios for the South Carolina Primary. It was time for a reality check, as a favorable scenario for Gingrich was plainly visible: If Gingrich held a strong lead in the polls over Rick Santorum, the Anti-Romney vote would coalesce, stripping Santorum and Rick Perry of their support in the final week and giving Gingrich the edge.

That is precisely what has happened. Although Gingrich got good marks for his debate performance on Monday, the effect of the debate was overrated. Gingrich's upward movement was already taking place, and was largely due to the strategic shift of Perry/Santorum support over to Gingrich. Voting takes place tomorrow, and here is where we stand:

South Carolina Primary
01/19 PPP (D) -- Gingrich 36, Romney 30, Santorum 16, Paul 15
01/19 WeAskAmerica -- Gingrich 32, Romney 28, Paul 13, Santorum 9
01/18 Reuters -- Romney 35, Gingrich 23, Santorum 15, Paul 13
01/18 ARG -- Gingrich 33, Romney 32, Paul 19, Santorum 9
01/18 Rasmussen -- Gingrich 33, Romney 31, Paul 15, Santorum 11
01/18 PPP (D) -- Gingrich 34, Romney 28, Paul 15, Santorum 14
01/18 Insider Adv -- Gingrich 32, Romney 29, Paul 15, Santorum 11
01/18 Tarrance (R) -- Romney 37, Gingrich 30, Paul 11, Santorum 10

In most of the polls, Gingrich holds a narrow lead over Romney. He also has the momentum. What's more, Santorum is still holding onto a chunk of the voters. That means Gingrich's numbers can rise even further at Santorum's expense. As we observed in the review of last night's debate, Santorum gave a strong performance, but it's too late to reverse the process; he can only hope to stop the bleeding.

That would be enough to guarantee Gingrich victory, but an early "October surprise" adds some doubt: On Thursday, ABC aired a highly-publicized interview with Gingrich's second ex-wife, who made incendiary claims about Gingrich (most prominently, that Gingrich asked her to tolerate an open marriage).

Unfortunately, there is no time for any polling that will take this scandal into account. Thus, it's difficult to determine what impact it will have on the voting in South Carolina. With Herman Cain's scandals, we saw that its effect was not immediate; it caused a slow erosion of Cain's support. Cain lost support from women earlier, as they were more willing to take the scandals to heart, but in this case the effect would need to be almost overnight.

Our best guess is that adding Gingrich's momentum, the possibility of further Santorum defection, and Gingrich's preexisting lead should be enough to hand him South Carolina. However, it ought to be somewhat close. It will be closer if the Gingrich scandal has any impact.

A win by Gingrich in South Carolina will put a quick halt to Romney's aura of inevitability. As we explained earlier this week, however, Florida is the real test. That's because it will be the first opportunity for a single Anti-Romney to fight against Romney. The narrative thus far has been that Romney has won due to the split in his rivals' vote. If the Anti-Romney vote coalesces behind Gingrich and Romney still wins, that proves Romney is the clear favorite.

Romney will get bad press if he loses South Carolina, but it's easy to exaggerate the state's importance. South Carolina is one of Romney's worst states. In 2008, Romney got about twice the share of the vote in Florida as he did in South Carolina. If Romney is able to get 30% of the vote in an unfavorable state like South Carolina, that means he is greatly over-performing compared to his last run, and he should be very optimistic about his chances of winning the nomination.