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.


  1. Nice balanced analysis. This horse race stuff has really gotten out of hand- as usual.

    I am fairly conservative on economic issues certainly and no fan of Obama. I think he is terrible manager among other things so i have a bias- as we all do it seems- but I have watched this entire process for months now. It amazes me that we have an extremely vulnerable president by any measure yet the republican party can’t seem to get a candidate that excites anything close to a majority- maybe there is no more middle of either party any more but I do not know many people who are actually excited about any of these guys. Many of my friends are almost desperate to replace Obama because they really believe that he is a disaster. I recognize that most of your readers will not agree with that viewpoint but that is not my point.

    The motivation for change on the part of these people is as high as I have ever seen it and the frustration by the weak field is off the charts.

    As one old enough to remember Tip O’Neill, Hubert Humphrey, Everett Dirksen, and Ronald Reagan it distresses me that we seem to have lost the ability to ever put partisanship aside. Every thing is a gotcha and no one dares to do the right thing because that often is not politically correct. I read it everywhere, including in some of the responses to your posts ( not in the posts themselves).

    We don’t have disagreements we have enemies!

    That is not the way to run a republic

    It is funny because I have some conservative and some liberal friends ( at least on some issues) and almost universally we have stopped discussing politics because each side has demonized the other to the point that reasonable people can’t seem to disagree without being disagreeable.

    Guys like Limbaugh, Axelrod, etc have been very effective rallying their troops and poisoning the entire situation in the process.


  2. Jim,

    Here’s the question for you and other readers. I think you are right that there is a strong sentiment among Republicans that 2012 presents an unusually promising opportunity to unseat a sitting president. I also don’t disagree that there is not overwhelming enthusiasm for any single Republican candidate currently running. But isn’t that always the case this early in the process? Many Republicans didn’t like McCain in 2008. So, assuming no other candidate jumps in the race, how likely is it that Republicans would rally behind a Newt or Mitt, whatever their misgivings, given the chance to unseat Obama? I have to think it’s pretty high – as long as they think the candidate has a shot at winning the general election. Thoughts?

  3. You’re right about the blogosphere, in particular with regards to politics. There’s less flattening and diversification than there is tribal consolidation, and it’s created a hyper-sensitive echo chamber of mutually-reinforcing ideology. It’s scary, going to both right- and left-leaning blogs, and seeing how each side takes its own assumptions and philosophy absolutely for granted. Right-wing blogs simply can’t be bothered to even consider the idea that social welfare programs might create better overall outcomes than complete free-market consequentialism. And left-leaning pundits can’t imagine the idea that conservatives, who want to socially regulate and economically deregulate, might want to do it for the sake of stability and self-reliance rather than because of greed and fascist tendencies.

    This kind of an echo chamber amplifies partisan biases into something deafening. Many of the liberal personalities laugh because Newt is doing so well, and they see him as radically dislikable and unelectable — thus, they basically infer that the whole Republican field is dislikable and unelectable. And, of course, outspoken conservatives, across the board, see Obama as the anti-Christ (I’ve heard this asserted out loud before), and feel that there’s no more important mission in the world than to depose him as soon as possible. The question is: how much is either of these sentiments really in play within the general electorate, and how much is simply amplified partisan feedback?

    I’m firmly left-leaning, and one of the things I’m happy about is that the most radically conservative candidates — Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann — and the least qualified ones, like Herman Cain — have been disqualified already. I’m hoping the same happens to Ron Paul and Rick Santorum ASAP. Romney and Gingrich are both pragmatic politicians who can respect the system they’re working within, so however much I disagree with their philosophies, I appreciate that they’re becoming the most likely nominees.

  4. Matt,

    Excellent analysis of the SC situation. I had expected Newt to receive the ‘favorite son’/neighboring state bump there myself and called his victory about three weeks ago, though I remain shocked by the magnitude of it. What role do you think the Super PAC’s and their unlimited, ‘uncoordinated’ expenditures played in Newt’s win in SC and will they give him the opportunity to compete in FL (a much more expensive, less conservative state) with the well-funded Romney?

    Nice call on the Patriots! As a native New Englander and long time Pats fan I’m hoping for a little revenge for, well, you know.



  5. @Rob – I think the SuperPacs were probably helpful to Newt in terms of returning the media playing field to a more level tilt than we saw in Iowa, where poor Newt was buried under an avalanche of negative advertising to a far greater degree than any other candidate. But I also think advertising is probably better at activating latent predispositions more than it is in changing people’s minds from one candidate to another. I also think, like you, that Newt had a built-in advantage in his neighboring state, one bolstered by greater ideological affinity between Newt and the voters. Keep in mind that in NH about half the voters were independents or Democrats who were never going to vote for Newt over Mitt. In South Carolina the tables were reversed. All a long way of saying that ads work only if they have material to use that resonates with the voters’ predispositions. That’s my read, but it is based as much on intuition as it is on any careful data analysis.

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