The Carolina Conundrum

The day before his decisive victory in the South Carolina primary, Newt Gingrich held a rally in Mount Pleasant on the USS Yorktown, a retired World War II-era aircraft carrier that has been turned into a museum of naval history. It was a huge event. Hundreds of people filed onto the ship to hear Newt “give 'em hell”—with “'em” being a combination of Democrats, the “liberal media,” and the Republican establishment.

Even then, with a clear demonstration of Newt’s momentum, I wasn’t sure that he could pull out a win on Saturday. After all, as far as GOP primaries are concerned, South Carolina Republicans aren’t known for their embrace of firebrands; nearly every time, they validate the elite choice. And with the strength of the establishment behind him, Mitt Romney seemed like he would likely continue the trend.

As it turned out, of course, my lack of faith was unfounded. The mass of undecided South Carolinians—nearly half of voters made their choice within a few days of the primary—broke for the former House speaker, reversing his fortunes and throwing the broader race into disarray.

All of this begs a few questions: Why did they choose Gingrich and disregard Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul? What happened to Romney’s commanding lead in the week ahead of the primary? Why was it that Santorum—the anointed choice of social conservatives—couldn’t catch fire? And what does it mean for the GOP race going forward?

After spending a few weeks in South Carolina—traveling the state, talking to voters—I have a few thoughts.

It’s not enough to be inevitable.

The key conceit of Mitt Romney’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination is that he is the most electable candidate, and thus, the inevitable one. That’s why his dual victories in Iowa and New Hampshire were so important—they reinforced the view that, when it was time to choose, GOP voters would dutifully line up behind the former Massachusetts governor.

The problem with a campaign built on inevitability is that it’s fragile. If all of a sudden you seem weak, then you’re left scrambling for an approach that will keep voters on your side. Between the attacks on Bain Capital, the questions surrounding his tax returns, and the revised results from Iowa that showed him coming in second, Romney lost his footing in the race for South Carolina’s voters and couldn’t regain it.

Ironically, for a state that has embraced the elite choice in election after election, Romney was too much a creature of the establishment to support for many voters. “I don’t want the press and the mainstream GOP to pick the candidate,” said Barbara Bates, who attended the Republican debate in Myrtle Beach. “I want regular people to choose the nominee.”

Don’t underestimate tribalism.

On paper, there’s no way that Gingrich wins a state like South Carolina, with its intense distrust of the federal government and its deep-seated social conservatism. Not only is Gingrich the definition of a political insider—a former high-ranking lawmaker who left office under a thick plume of scandal—but with two affairs and three marriages, he appears to be the antithesis of social conservative values.

Despite this, South Carolinians love him. Brian and Cathy Renaud, who attended a Gingrich rally in Mount Pleasant, were typical of those who forgave the former speaker’s indiscretions and dismissed the new allegations from his second wife. “I think we all see through the media’s ploy,” Brian said. “Putting her up to talk two days before a primary? Give me a break.”

The simple fact is that Newt Gingrich comes across as one of them. He is fluent in the language of white resentment and understands the fear and disdain for a government that takes from the “hard-working” and gives to the “undeserving.” “I think his message is pretty simple; he’s looking for people who want a hand up and not a handout,” said one attendee at a Gingrich event in Charleston, "[people] who want to get a job, and want to contribute to society.”

Yes, Gingrich excelled in large part because of the two debates. But the scale of his success had a lot to do with the authenticity of his persona and his ability to speak the language of his audience. Put another way, a politician who casually refers to the Civil War as “the War Between the States”—which he did at the aforementioned rally—is the kind of politician who is well suited to the home of John C. Calhoun and Preston Brooks.

You can’t just rely on ideology.

The flip side of this was former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, whose views were more in line with South Carolinians’ than any other candidate. Of the 18 percent of voters who saw “strong moral character” as the most important thing in a candidate, Santorum won 41 percent.

But evangelical piety can only go so far, and Santorum couldn’t connect with Southern voters who wanted an anti-Obama champion. Indeed, as much as Santorum portrayed the president as a danger to the country, he was always careful to do so with a little respect. At a town hall on Daniel Island, for example, Santorum dismissed the idea that Obama was “in over his head,” as Romney likes to say. "It's demeaning to the president to say that he's over his head,” Santorum said. “These are things he seriously wants to accomplish. He has a very different view of what makes America a great country. And he has in some ways done a very effective job in getting his legislation passed.”

In substance, this is nearly identical to the attacks by Gingrich and Romney, but it’s much nicer, and unfortunately for Santorum, South Carolina voters weren’t looking for “nice.”

Beyond this, Santorum had neither the time nor organization to pull off a repeat of his upset in Iowa, even with his endorsement from evangelical and conservative leaders. In a lot of ways, the former Pennsylvania senator was a victim of the primary calendar. If South Carolina had come after Iowa, he could have parlayed his success into a strong finish. But New Hampshire blunted his momentum, and South Carolina wasn’t the right place for his brand of blue-collar conservatism.

There are limits to “anybody but Obama.”

As much as “anybody but Obama” is the mantra for Republicans in this election, it’s obvious that they don’t really mean it. In ideology and approach, Ron Paul is the closest thing to the antithesis of Barack Obama. But his attacks on defense spending and the drug war were alienating to South Carolina Republicans. Indeed, if I could sum up the general reaction to Paul in the state, it would look like this: “Anybody would be better than Obama, except for Ron Paul—that guy is a little nuts.”

In finishing fourth, Paul received the bulk of his support from moderates and independents; conservatives and Republicans were the least likely to vote for the Texas congressman. If Paul continues on to Florida, he can expect more of the same—a coalition of moderates, independents, and young people, albeit a smaller one, because only Republicans can vote in the Florida primary.

A precursor to Florida?

If they haven’t already, the candidates will fly to Florida on Monday to begin campaigning in the final primary of the January calendar. Conventional wisdom says that this is Mitt Romney’s primary to lose; not only does he have a double-digit lead in the state, but Florida is home to a somewhat more pragmatic brand of conservatism than South Carolina.

On the other hand, Florida Republicans are not moderates, and they have shown a fondness for right-wing candidates in recent years. Romney, Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul are competing for voters who elected arch-conservative Rick Scott to the governorship and propelled Tea Party favorites Marco Rubio and Allen West to national fame.

Moreover, with the exception of its Cuban American contingent, the Florida GOP looks a lot like the one in South Carolina: older, mostly white, and predominantly Southern. Yes, on account of its wealth, the state party has a strong pro-business wing. But if Gingrich can leverage his support with Latino Republicans to win the south of the state, and whistle Dixie to win the north, he could walk away with another come-from-behind victory.

In which case, predictions are useless, because American politics will have entered unknown territory.

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