Tag Archives: South Carolina primary

What Really Happened in South Carolina, and What It Means For The Rest Of The Race

Did you hear that noise this morning?  It was the sound of heads in the punditocracy exploding in reaction to Newt Gingrich’s “surprise” win in South Carolina yesterday. The new – and wrong – post-South Carolina conventional wisdom is captured in Sean Trende’s assessment at RealClearPolitics:  “This vote was an utter repudiation of Romney, and it absolutely will be repeated in state after state if something doesn’t change the basic dynamic of the race.”

No, what this vote repudiated was the media’s misguided belief that Romney was a strong candidate in the first place, one who was on the cusp of closing this race out in overwhelming fashion. In truth, what the first three contests have confirmed is what I’ve been telling you all along:  Mitt Romney is a weak candidate – one who has never demonstrated in five years of running for president that he could broaden his support beyond the country club/Wall St. set.

Before developing these points, let me summarize the state of the race as it actually stands, as opposed to where the pundits would have us believe it stands.  First, Gingrich won a decisive victory last night; with 100% of the precincts reporting he finished with 40.4% of the vote, easily besting Mitt who won 27.8%.  Santorum ran a distant third at 17% and Paul took 13%. (In a blow to Colbert fans, Herman Cain won only about 6,000 votes – or 1.1% – of the vote.)  In contrast to the two states won by Santorum and Romney, turnout was up by more than 30% (about 601,000 voters) over the 2008 total (about 450,000) – a sign that Gingrich energized the Tea Party base.  Gingrich probably won 23 of the 25 delegates at stake, with Mitt holding on to take the two in the first congressional district that includes Charleston.  (Note, however, that congressional district lines in South Carolina may yet change, pending a court challenge after the 2010 redistricting.) That puts Newt in the lead in the all-important delegate count, 27-17, over Mitt (note that Iowa has not awarded delegates yet, contrary to what some media outlets may imply.)

Now on to the pundits’ assessments. They are, as a whole, predictably overreacting to yesterday’s results (sometimes in hilarious fashion).  Here’s Andrew Sullivan’s take:  “This is the Republican crack-up people have been predicting for years. Gingrich is on a roll. I think he can win this – and then lose this in a way that could change America history. That is a brief impression in one moment of time. But I cannot see Romney winning this at this point. They are just not into him, and he’s an awful candidate.”  Taegan Goddard opines at Political Wire: “By any measure, it’s a devastating loss to frontrunner Mitt Romney.”  And this from the online newspaper TheHill: “Gingrich’s victory makes for many more uncertainties in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, which had seemed like a foregone conclusion a few days ago when Mitt Romney was in the lead in South Carolina polls.”

You get the picture. In a span of a bit less than a week the conventional wisdom has gone from planning Romney’s coronation to contemplating “the Republican crack-up” in the wake of Romney’s “devastating” loss.  Neither perspective is correct.  I’ve gone on at some length in previous posts to point out Romney’s weaknesses, as indicated by the results in Iowa and New Hampshire.  Now is the time to remember his strengths.  First, he is not an “awful” candidate – he is a very good candidate, one the majority of Republican voters consistently view in favorable terms.  He has loads of money, knows how to run a campaign and is, in fact, a solid debater who generally does well in these formats.  The problem is that he has never demonstrated the capacity to win over conservative Republican voters for reasons that I want to develop in a separate post.  For now, let me call it his “authenticity” problem:  Republicans do not know what his core values really are because those beliefs seem, based on his past record, to be somewhat malleable.

What about Gingrich?  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a candidate held in such contempt by the media and party establishment.  And that is precisely what is fueling his success among Tea Party activists and the Republican base.  In a significant ironic twist, the Establishment’s efforts to excommunicate Gingrich for his past heresies have simply strengthened his appeal to Republican nomination voters.  Here’s a career politician who is making an effective case that he’s the candidate of change!  One thing that has become increasingly clear to me is that the Establishment’s collective disdain for Newt as a person (the term “blowhard” is frequently used) has distorted their assessment of his candidacy. Because they don’t like Newt, they can’t see how anyone else can support him.

So where does this race stand?  Exactly where it stood a week ago.  Lost in the handwringing over Mitt’s “collapse” in South Carolina is that his support there really never wavered from the 28-31% range.  What happened in the end is that as South Carolina voters started paying attention, beginning with Monday’s debate, they moved to their natural inclination, which was for most of them to support Newt.  And so he rose in the polls to the expected equilibrium outcome.   But Mitt didn’t really lose all that much support post-debate.  We shouldn’t lose sight of this.  It bears repeating:  South Carolina is to Newt as New Hampshire was to Mitt: his backyard state.

In the next several days I’ll begin my Florida assessment.   But I want to end here by raising a somewhat speculative point.   I once thought that the advent of the “blogosphere”, with its myriad political outlets, would broaden and diversify debate beyond the cloistered Washington-based conventional wisdom that dominated the pre-internet political discussions.  I’m increasingly convinced, however, that this hasn’t happened.  Instead, the blogosphere has become dominated by its own talking (writing?) heads who have integrated themselves into the media establishment, and whose control over twitter feeds and on-line posts has exacerbated the problems associated with the old media.  The pundits now flit from online to talk show, spreading their misguided, often partisan-based analysis.   New conventional wisdoms are created, disseminated, accepted and then rejected with increasing rapidity.   The blogosphere hasn’t so much improved debate as it has accentuated its worse tendencies.   As I read through the various online assessments of the race after Iowa and New Hampshire, and watched the talk shows, it amazed me just how wrong these assessments were – spectacularly wrong, in many cases.   The numbers, at least as I was reading them (and reporting them to you) weren’t supporting most of the claims I was hearing.

Look, although I’ll milk my South Carolina prediction for as long as you let me, long time readers know that I’m in no position to claim infallibility in these issues.  (Remember my Scott Brown prediction!)  But there’s something to be said for acknowledging how uncertain our assessments are.   I don’t think we get enough people saying “I really don’t know what is going to happen, so I’ll give you my partisan preference, and we can all pretend it is rooted in something more substantial than my hopes and prayers.  But it’s really not.”

With that in mind, let me make my prediction: Patriots 24, Ravens 20.  By the way, that’s a guess based on my hopes and prayers.

Why Is Gingrich Still In The Race? There’s Really No Debate

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… .

 

Perry Endorses, Newt’s Divorces, and Santorum’s Remorses

Since I posted this morning, four more South Carolina polls have come in, three of which were in the field entirely after Monday’s debate.  Each of the three most recent polls has Newt in the lead, albeit within the polls’ margin of error.  Note that all three are automated polls, which may or may not be significant. Mark Halperin conveniently summarizes them for us at his Pollster.com website:

As you can see, they support my earlier assertion that Newt has pulled into a de facto tie with Mitt two days before Saturday’s South Carolina primary.  Note that Newt has pulled even despite the fact that Romney’s support is holding pretty steady.  This is really a case of the late deciders all breaking for Newt after Monday’s debate.  If the trend lines hold, Gingrich is poised to eke out a narrow victory, which would put a crimp in the pundits’ prevailing narrative.

But that’s a big “if” given two additional developments since I posted.  First, Rick Perry gave a strong endorsement for Newt, saying, “I believe Newt is a conservative visionary who can transform our country. We’ve had our differences, which campaigns will inevitably have, and Newt is not perfect, but who among us is?”  As I indicated this morning, I don’t think this will provide a huge boost to Newt’s likely support, although even a modest boost may be critical in a close race.  But what it does do is provide some political insulation for Newt against any fallout from today’s second big story:  ABC’s interview with Gingrich ex-wife Marianne (the second one).  Among the explosive allegations purportedly contained in the interview, perhaps none is bigger than the report that Newt asked Marianne for an “open marriage” so that he could be with Callista (now his third wife) without divorcing Marianne.  It’s hard to say what impact, if any this story will have.   Obviously this steps on the Perry endorsement, which is not great news for Newt, but will it actually cost him votes?  I suspect it will give some social conservatives pause – but I simply don’t know how many will reconsider supporting Newt.  My gut says not many – the same gut that said Rick Perry would be a strong candidate, mind you.

In this regard, a greater proportion of women than men are undecided about Newt’s candidacy, according to the latest polls.  On the other hand, there’s the possibility that conservatives will seek this as a thinly veiled plot by the “liberal” media to destroy Newt’s candidacy.  And, of course, there will be the inevitable questioning of Marianne’s motives – why now?  What’s in it for her?  Who is really behind the story?  I don’t pretend to know the answer to any of these questions, but I’m pretty sure it will come up in the form of a question at tonight’s debate.   If so, Newt has to turn the other cheek with his response.  He should avoid questioning Marianne’s motives at all costs, and indeed mentioning her at all.  Instead, he should repeat the Christian mantra: “I am not worthy. I ask for forgiveness.”  Then he should remind voters it happened a long time ago, and proceed to wax eloquent about his wife, his grandchildren and his new found maturity.  He should finish by saying, “Rick Perry was right when he endorsed me today. I’m not perfect.  None of us are.”

Keep in mind that neither Santorum nor especially Romney can bring this issue up on their own, but they will certainly be given the opportunity to pile on. Romney in particular has to be careful in this regard – he can’t look like he’s trying to score points at Newt’s personal expense.  A simple, “it’s something each voter must think about in her heart” will suffice. Then he damn well better go on the offensive about all of Newt’s other baggage:  immigration, ethics violation, Fannie Mae, etc.

On any other day, of course, the big story would be the belated acknowledgment that Rick Santorum had won in Iowa (don’t give me any of the media’s CYA “virtual tie” crap).  Poor Rick!  As it is his poll numbers have been dropping, and this may well be his last debate.  At this point there’s not a lot he can do to reverse those numbers, I don’t believe, short of major gaffes by Newt and Mitt.  Paul, meanwhile, has to make sure his medication kicks in in time to prevent him from going on one of his Wacky Uncle diatribes regarding currency, the Fed and how we are going to withdraw into Fortress America, with defense bases dotting the countryside.  He needs to stick with what got him here: deficit reductions, spending cuts and LIBERTY!  Although, as I look at the polling numbers, I think his core support is so solid that he’s relatively immune to any fallout from a weak debate performance.  Indeed, what I consider weak may not even matter to Paul’s true believers.  He’s going to get his 15%, medication or not.

I’ll be on at 7:50 for the live blog.  It promises to be a good one. Please join in….

 

Who Will Be The Lizard King? The Latest South Carolina Polls

It is probably no coincidence that CNN, which is hosting tomorrow’s South Carolina debate, hyped the results of its latest poll from that state as evidence “that [Romney’s] advantage over Newt Gingrich is rapidly shrinking.”   In fact, the poll taken Jan. 13-17 – a survey period almost entirely before Monday’s debate – has Romney up by 10% over Gingrich, 33% to 23%, with Santorum a distant third with 16%.   Yes, that does represent a 9% swing in Newt’s favor since the previous CNN poll two weeks before.  However, as Mark Halperin notes, that previous poll was something of an outlier because it showed Romney with a bigger lead than most other polls.  In the intervening two weeks, most other polls have shown Romney’s lead increasing – not diminishing.

Despite that caveat, I think that the tail end of the CNN survey may have caught a mini-Gingrich polling boomlet triggered not just by his strong debate performance, but also the impact of the raft of negative advertising that collectively has hit Mitt where it hurts the most: his ample wallet.

It really began, of course, with Romney’s rather indelicate remarks during the New Hampshire campaign regarding his love of pink slips and his own brushes with poverty, both of which became fodder for Newt’s campaign commercials.  Then there was the 30-minute docu-ad, funded by a pro-Newt SuperPac, chronicling Romney’s role at Bain Capital.  On Monday, in a rather stunning debate gaffe, Mitt equivocated on whether he would release his tax returns, finally saying he might do it sometime in April – when, presumably, he will have the nomination clinched.  In the aftermath of that stumble, he acknowledged that most of his income was now taxed at the 15% capital gains rate – all perfectly legit, but less than the rate many Americans pay.  He also acknowledged earning additional money through speaking fees, but said it wasn’t very much – if you consider over $300,000 from last year alone not much!  Finally, two hours ago ABC released this story with the headline “Romney Parks Millions In Offshore Tax Haven.”

Again, if you read the story, it is quite clear that Romney has done nothing wrong, and that the Cayman Islands are a tax haven for foreign investors – not for Romney.  Nonetheless, the cumulative impact of these stories has been to paint Romney as a latter day Gordon Gekko, the Michael Douglas character in the film Wall St. who famously expounded on the virtues of greed.

All this in a state where unemployment is pushing 10%.  Needless to say, the beneficiary of the Mitt-as-Gekko storyline has been Newt Gingrich.  When John King announced the CNN poll tonight, he hinted that the results of that part of the survey done after Monday’s debate showed much greater gains for Gingrich.  Of course, given the limited sample size, we need to be cautious about interpreting the results.  We will know more tomorrow, when NBC is supposed to reveal the results of their first post-debate poll.  Gingrich – never one to take good news quietly – has now gone on record as saying he will win on Saturday.  The only question is by how much. I’m guessing he has additional internal polling results that show him gaining ground.

Meanwhile, as expected, Mitt is not taking this sitting down.  He’s rallied the Republican establishment against Newt, with an effort to brand the former Speaker as unreliable, as the following ad shows. .

All this sets up a delicious rematch in tomorrow’s debate, and I haven’t even begun to mention Santorum, whose polls numbers are slipping, or Paul, who certainly is looking to rebound.  One area that has gotten a bit of media play again is Newt’s relatively moderate stance on immigration, which may serve him well looking ahead to Florida and Nevada, but which will not play well in South Carolina.  I expect Romney to counterpunch on both these themes in tomorrow’s debate.

South Carolina: It’s Gekko vs. the Newt in the Battle To be Lizard King*

*Ok, a newt is technically an amphibian. Still….

Polls Indicate That Romney is Running Away in South Carolina…And Tebow Likely to Win Today Too!

Is Romney gaining strength in South Carolina as this Huffington Post headline proclaims?  Two recent polls indicate that he is.

But both are likely wrong.

The first poll is an interactive voice response automated poll by New Frontier Strategy (NFS) that was conducted January 11-12.  It has Romney in a comfortable lead over Newt Gingrich, 31.7% to 23%.  Perhaps the most interesting result, however, is that Ron Paul is a distant fourth, with only 9% support.  (The margin of error is +/- 3.44%).

Candidate Support
Romney 31.72%
Gingrich 23.05%
Santorum 13.88%
Paul 9.67%
Perry 5.58%
Huntsman 4.34%
Undecided 11.77%

Note that Romney’s margin over Gingrich, and his overall level of support, is larger than recent polls in South Carolina have indicated, and Paul’s support is much lower.  The reason, I think, becomes apparent when we look at the NFS’s sample’s demographics.  Most noticeably, less than five percent of their sample includes individuals 40 years old or younger – precisely the age group from which Paul draws most of his support.  At the same time, those age 60 or older constitute a whopping 55% of the sample!  Note that Romney has done quite well among older voters. For comparison purposes, exit polls from the South Carolina Republican primary in 2008 indicate only 35% of voters were 60 or older, and 33% were under 45.  Based on this, I suspect this poll is heavily under sampling Paul voters, and oversampling Romney’s.

The second poll – and the one the Huffington Post article discusses under the headline “South Carolina Primary: Mitt Romney Opens Up Big Lead In The Palmetto State” – has Romney comfortably ahead with 37% of the vote, with Paul and Santorum tied for second at 16%.  In contrast to the NFS poll, this one has Gingrich way down at 12%.  Once again, however, there is good reason not to take this poll seriously, despite the Huffington Post’s headline: the online poll included 995 South Carolina registered voters, of which 398 were Republicans and 380 Democrats. The comparable totals from 2008, based on exit polls, were 80% Republicans and 2% Democrats.  Even though South Carolina is an open primary, it is highly unlikely that Democrats are going to turn out in numbers approaching 40% of the electorate – a proportion that would almost equal the Republican level of participation.  Once again, I suspect this poll is overstating Romney’s support and likely understating Gingrich’s.

Bottom line?  Tim Tebow’s chances of winning today are better than the likelihood that these polls are accurate.