Based on surveys taken before last Monday’s South Carolina debate, Mitt Romney led Newt Gingrich in the RealClearPolitics aggregate poll by a comfortable 10%, 32.3% to 22%, and seemed poised to sweep the first three events in this nominating process, thus cementing the inevitability mantra that both pundits and some scholars were chanting. Five days and two debates later, Gingrich is on the cusp – if the latest polls are accurate – of winning a blowout victory in South Carolina. The aggregate poll has him up by 5%, 33.5-28.5%, over Romney, but the latest ARG poll released today has Gingrich up by a whopping 14%, 40-26% over Romney, with Paul a distant third. That poll is identical to the results from the final day of PPP’s three-day tracking poll. If this holds up, Gingrich will have gained 18% in five short days, while Romney would have dropped 6% – a turnaround of 24%. This is a stunning reversal in such a short time period. And Gingrich’s margin could grow – 20% of survey respondents say they could change their mind, and 60% of Romney supporters list Gingrich as their second choice (all from the PPP poll). Among Santorum supporters, 38% say they may change their mind – and 42% of them list Gingrich as their second choice.
Barring a Bachmann miracle, then, it appears that Gingrich is poised to cap a remarkable turnaround with a convincing victory in the biggest state to go to the polls so far. With that in mind, what should we look for in tonight’s results, and what are the implications for the race after South Carolina?
- Electability: It has been a central tenet of this campaign that Romney has the best chance of any Republican to beat Obama in the general election. But the final polls show Gingrich closing that gap, with this YouGov poll indicating that 72% think Gingrich is very likely or somewhat likely to beat Obama, compared to 80% who think this of Romney. Fifty percent of those polled say their support was based primarily on this factor, with 48% saying it was based on the issues.
- The gender gap: Romney has been consistently outpolling Gingrich among women, but in South Carolina that gap has almost been erased, with all three of the most recent polls, including YouGov, PPP and the ARG, showing Gingrich leading Romney among women. In fact, in the ARG poll Gingrich does better among women than he does among men. This suggests the Marianne issue may not have the gender-based legs that some anticipated.
- Class: There is a distinct class bias in Romney and Gingrich’s support, with polls indicating that Romney does better among South Carolina voters earning more than $80,000, but Gingrich winning all incomes groups below that number.
- Favorability: Romney has consistently been viewed more favorably than the more polarizing Gingrich, but that gap also closed in South Carolina. Gingrich’s final favorable/unfavorable numbers in the PPP poll are 54/37 – Romney’s are 51/42. Will that favorable ratio hold for Gingrich as we head to Florida?
- The issues: Gingrich made inroads on Romney’s strong suit – the economy – with about equal numbers choosing each candidate as best able to handle economic issues.
Note that these are all from the latest polls – it remains to be seen whether they will hold up in tonight’s exit polls. But they do provide some evidence that Gingrich has closed the gap on a number of advantages formerly associated with Romney – at least in this state.
What to look for tonight.
Given the polling numbers, I expect the networks to call this almost immediately when the polls close at 7 p.m. If they don’t, there’s hope for Romney that this will be less than a rout. South Carolina is really three somewhat distinct voting areas: the low country, the midlands, and the upstate area. Expect Gingrich to dominate upstate – the region where Huckabee did very well in 2008 (Greenville-Spartanburg), while Romney needs to draw heavily in the midland and coastal areas (the swath from Charleston up through Columbia).
Remember, McCain won only 33% of the vote here in 2008, with Huckabee a close second at 30%. Right now Gingrich is on track to beat McCain’s total and his winning margin, but by how much depends in part on turnout. Predicted turnout is about 450,000 – anything higher will likely benefit Gingrich. In 2008, independents were 18% of the vote – I expect that to increase with no Democratic primary (South Carolina is an open primary state). However, I expect Paul to draw as much support from this group as Romney does, which may give Paul enough of a boost to finish a strong third.
Keep in mind that one of the other important stories tonight is whether Santorum can beat Paul for third place. If he can’t, and he finishes in single digits, it will make it hard for him to raise money and compete in Florida, which has very expensive media markets. Remember, Santorum’s victory in Iowa was the result of his ability to engage in old-fashioned door-to-door campaigning. He won’t be able to recreate that scenario in Florida, so doing well tonight is critical for him.
With that background, here are my predictions, per tradition:
Polls close at 7 p.m. I’ll be on shortly before for some live blogging.