Two of the most recent polls from South Carolina show a tight race for victory in the primary. A new survey from the American Research Group finds Mitt Romney in the lead with 29 percent of the vote, to 25 percent for Gingrich, 20 percent for Paul, 9 percent for Rick Perry, and 7 percent for Rick Santorum. A second poll, from Rasmussen, has Santorum in somewhat better straits; Romney still leads—with 28 percent of the vote—but Santorum has the third-place spot, with 16 percent of the vote. Newt Gingrich takes 21 percent of the vote.
Together, these numbers seem like bad news for Mitt Romney. Yes, he’s in the lead, but Ron Paul is on an upward trajectory, and Newt Gingrich remains alone among the candidates who actually stand a chance of catching up to the former Massachusetts governor. What’s more, Romney seems to have reached a ceiling in his overall support in the state.
His trend line is basically flat and could easily go down, if either of the Tea Party candidates caught a second wind. Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which voters flock from one Tea Party candidate to another, giving him a lead in the state—or at least—a chance to topple Romney. This wouldn’t stop the governor from winning the nomination, but it would slow the rush to a coronation and give conservatives time to settle their worries with Romney.
In all likelihood, however, this isn’t going to happen. For starters, a critical mass of voters is comfortable with Romney and his conservatism. “He’s really not that moderate,” said Anne Sullivan at a rally last week. “He’s not for gay marriage, he’s against abortion, and he’s pro-Israel. What more do you want?” Likewise, a Perry supporter admitted she was OK with Romney as a standard-bearer against Obama: “Anyone is better than Obama, and any of the candidates would be an improvement over what we have,” said Wilma Storey at Perry’s “meet and greet” in Anderson, South Carolina.
Moreover, the Tea Party establishment in South Carolina—Jim DeMint and his associates—are seemingly all right with the prospect of a Romney nomination. Yesterday, for example, three advisers to the senator—former state party chairman Barry Wynn, Columbia-based fundraiser Peter Brown, and Columbia attorney Kevin Hall—announced their support for Romney.
Governor Nikki Haley isn’t hugely popular with South Carolina Republicans—I spoke to a number of voters who dismissed the notion that she influenced their support—but through her endorsement, she bolstered Romney with organization and support around the state. In other words, the people who would necessarily form the basis of a campaign against Romney are already on the governor’s side.
All of this gets to something that’s been overlooked in South Carolina, and the Republican primary writ large. Yes, each of the conservative candidates have seen bubbles of support to place them in opposition to Mitt Romney, but that’s not the same thing as there being an “anti-Romney” faction in the Republican Party.
If I’ve learned anything over the last week, it’s that conservative voters are willing to support Romney; he’s just not their first choice. And as the field of viable candidates continues to dwindle, those same voters will readily jump to support the former Massachusetts governor. More important, when the general election comes, they will fall in line and follow the standard.