Today one more South Carolina poll, this one sponsored by Clemson University, was released and it showed Newt Gingrich with a 6% advantage over Mitt Romney, 32-26%, with Paul in 3rd with 11% and Santorum at 9%. The survey was in field on Jan. 18-19 – before last night’s debate, and it is the latest in a series of polls that show Gingrich inching into the lead there. If the latest polling trends hold, Gingrich is poised to win tomorrow. Romney, for his part, has begun downplaying expectations in his public comments, a sure sign that his internal polling is showing the same result.
If Newt does win tomorrow, I expect the media pundits – who have been loudly proclaiming the inevitability of Romney’s nomination – to now reverse direction and suddenly begin reassessing his candidacy. At the same time, those who were formerly criticizing Gingrich’s candidacy will suddenly begin touting his hidden strengths. Before that happens, let me issue two cautionary points.
First, Romney was never as strong a candidate as the media, with all its blather about the first non-incumbent to win Iowa and New Hampshire, etc., etc., made him out to be. I trust I don’t have to repeat the reasons why that is the case. The summary answer is that after five years running for president, he has not expanded his coalition to show he can win over conservatives.
But we should also realize that in many respects South Carolina is Newt’s ideal state. Indeed, when Gingrich was plotting his nomination strategy last summer, South Carolina was always meant to be his breakout state because its demographics were most favorable to him. That he is poised to do well here only seems surprising in light of the unexpected surge and decline in his polling support in November and December. That initial surge triggered the barrage of negative ads and media scrutiny that brought Newt’s polling numbers back to earth. But if you step back and focus on the big picture fundamentals, Newt’s strong showing in South Carolina is no more surprising than was Romney’s win in New Hampshire, given Newt’s regional roots and the state’s more conservative political profile.
In short, if Newt wins tomorrow, the switch in the media narrative will be more dramatic than will any change in the fundamental dynamics of the race itself. And, as I noted yesterday, although Newt will undoubtedly get a boost coming out of South Carolina, the fundamentals – money, organization, demographics – still seem to favor Romney in Florida. While I don’t share my political science colleagues’ oft-stated belief that Romney’s march to the nomination is preordained, and I disagree that he is helped by the winnowing of the conservative field, I do think a loss in South Carolina is not nearly as damaging to him as the media will suggest. Similarly, as longtime readers know, I never bought my colleagues’ argument that Newt had no chance to win this nomination – in fact, I suggested that he matched up well with his competitors. But we should not forget that his candidacy has real weaknesses, not least of which is that he remains a somewhat polarizing figure, that he lacks money, and that he has a weak organization.
So, given these weaknesses, why is Newt doing so well? In my view, it can be summed up in a word: debates. The extraordinary number of debates so far – 17 by my count – has afforded maximum (and free!) exposure in a format at which Newt excels. I don’t recall any previous nomination cycle in which we have seen so many debates, and in which one candidate proved so consistently better than his competitors at taking advantage of this format. This cumulative impact of these debates has been to both winnow the field of potential strong competitors (see Perry) and to weaken others (Romney) while bolstering Gingrich’s reputation. In short, I believe the debates have gone a long way toward compensating for Gingrich’s lack of money and organization.
There is no better illustration of this than in how Gingrich responded to what might have been a fatal revelation to a candidate who lacked Newt’s debating skills: the Marianne Gingrich accusation that the Newtster sought an “open” marriage so he could continue his dalliance with his new love (and eventual 3rd wife) Callista. Today’s post-mortem by the punditocracy of last night’s debate focused on – and endlessly replayed – Newt’s riveting exchange with John King regarding Marianne’s accusation. I watched the interview with Marianne aired by ABC after last night’s debate and her accusations seemed tamer and less harmful to Newt than the media leaks suggested. Of course, we won’t know the full impact, if any, of this latest revelation before tomorrow. If the pundits are to be believed, however, Newt’s aggressive debate response went a long way toward neutralizing the issue with South Carolina voters. I have no independent polling evidence by which to confirm that assessment. But in using the debate to bolster his political standing, Newt reprised a strategy that has – so far – boosted his candidacy beyond what many of his critics thought was likely. Whether it will be enough to overcome those factors – endorsements, money, and polling support – that most political science models view as the crucial determinants of nomination races remains to be seen. But it is a question worth debating.
Addendum (11:45): The latest PPP poll just released today shows Gingrich’s lead in South Carolina expanding 37% to 28% over Romney, with 16% for Rick Santorum, and 14% for Ron Paul. In the final day of the three-day tracking poll, Gingrich’s lead is even larger at 40-26% – about the margin that Romney had in winning New Hampshire. According to PPP, 60% of those surveyed saw Thursday’s debate, and among those Gingrich led by a whopping 46-23%. This is one poll, but is reinforces the point of my post: Gingrich has benefited from his debate performances. One other factor in Gingrich’s favor?: only 31% of those surveyed think Marianne Gingrich’s charges are true, and 51% have “no concerns” about what came out in the interview.
I’ll be on tomorrow. South Carolina’s polls close at 7 p.m eastern time. It should be an interesting night… .