All eyes will be on South Carolina today due to the South Carolina Republican Presidential primary — which up until last week many felt could be the next to last step in the virtual coronation of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as the 2012 Republican nominee. To be sure, the campaign could have still gone on, but the political narrative was that Romney won Iowa, then won New Hampshire would then likely win South Carolina and then win Florida. And then the endgame, no matter how much Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity or Tea Party conservatives grumbled.
Now that has suddenly changed — and fast:
The bottom line: Romney is going into this vote not just being perceived as being weak, inept and fumbling as a politician, but as someone who is not the double winner that the media and his camaign claimed he was — and someone who increasingly looks like easy pickings for Obama & Co.
If you look at the political context it’s clear tonight (TMV will cover the results in detail tonight) will be one of the most dramatic political events of this young political campaign season. For instance:
Polls show Gingrich ahead.
Newt Gingrich heads into South Carolina election day as the clear front runner in the state: he’s now polling at 37% to 28% for Mitt Romney, 16% for Rick Santorum, and 14% for Ron Paul.
Gingrich’s lead has actually increased in the wake of his ex-wife’s controversial interview with ABC. Although one night poll results should always be interpreted with caution, he led the final night of the field period by a 40-26 margin. One thing that continues to work to his advantage are the debates. 60% of primary voters report having watched the one last night, and Gingrich has a 46-23 lead with those folks.
The other reason his ex-wife’s interview isn’t causing him much trouble is that there’s a lot of skepticism about it. Only 31% of voters say they think her accusations are true while 35% think they are false and 34% are unsure. 51% of voters say that they have ‘no concerns’ about what came out in the interview.
The skepticism of Republican voters toward the media is helping Gingrich as well. Just 14% of likely voters have a generally favorable opinion of the media, while 77% view it negatively. Gingrich’s attacks on the media have clearly played well with the party base.
Gingrich is leading with pretty much every key segment of the Republican electorate. He’s up 41-21 on Romney and Santorum with Evangelicals, he has a 52-18 advantage on Romney with Tea Partiers, he leads Santorum 44-21 with ‘very conservative’ voters with Romney at 20%, and he’s up 39-26 with men.
In the final week of the campaign Gingrich rose from 24% to 37% in PPP’s polling while Romney basically stayed in place, going from 29% to 28%. Romney saw a 15 point decline in his net favorability in the closing stretch from +24 (57/33) to just +9 (51/42). Gingrich saw a modest increase in his numbers over the final week from +14 (51/37) to +17 (54/37).
With polls opening in less than 24 hours for the important South Carolina presidential primary election, the final Palmetto Poll shows Newt Gingrich leading over Mitt Romney in a gritty battle fraught with personal attacks and breaking news about the candidates’ personal lives.
That’s the finding of the third Clemson University 2012 Palmetto Poll, a sample of 429 South Carolina GOP voters who indicated they plan to vote Saturday. The telephone poll was initiated Jan. 13 and recalibrated Jan. 18-19 to measure changing dynamics. Twenty percent of the likely voters remain undecided.
“We expect a reaction by the electorate to the personal revelations about Gingrich to be registered on Saturday, however, we do not think it will be substantial enough to erase the lead Gingrich has over Romney,” said Clemson University political scientist Dave Woodard.
“Our head-to-head matchup of the candidates has consistently shown Mitt Romney competitive. The margin for Romney has evaporated this week, and we believe that Gingrich — who led our December poll with 38 percent to Romney’s 21 percent — will win the South Carolina primary,” he said.
Among poll respondents who had chosen or were leaning toward a candidate, this third Palmetto Poll showed Newt Gingrich (32 percent) leading the field over Mitt Romney (26 percent), up slightly from a month ago. Ron Paul came in third (11 percent), about even with his December poll rating. Rick Santorum remained in fourth place (9 percent), despite a significant jump over his ranking last month.
Nate Silver, who has an excellent record with polling (just as the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato has an excellent record with political analysis and predictive analysis):
Newt Gingrich, who had trailed Mitt Romney by a double-digit margin in South Carolina in several polls conducted just after the New Hampshire primary, may instead be headed to a big victory there, recent polling suggests.
Mr. Gingrich leads Mr. Romney 38 to 30 in the FiveThirtyEight forecast of South Carolina, which has been updated with polling through Friday evening.
Much of the reason for the relatively clear lead for Mr. Gingrich is that he has very clear momentum in the race. In a survey conducted by Public Policy Polling, for instance, Mr. Gingrich led Mr. Romney by 4 percentage points in interviews conducted on Wednesday night, based on a detailed breakout of nightly results provided to FiveThirtyEight by Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling. But Mr. Gingrich’s lead expanded to 6 points in interviews conducted on Thursday. And Mr. Gingrich led by 14 points in about 700 interviews conducted on Friday night, after the Thursday night debate in North Charleston and the interview given to ABC News by one of Mr. Gingrich’s ex-wives.
In primaries, especially in the early-voting states, momentum is a strong predictor of the results, and it is usually correct to give considerable weight to the most recent data.
South Carolina has been surveyed by more than a dozen distinct polling firms over the past week, and the surveys are in agreement that Mr. Gingrich gained significant ground on Mr. Romney after the Monday night debate in Myrtle Beach. If Mr. Gingrich was also helped by the Thursday night debate, as the Public Policy Polling data suggests, his margin of victory in South Carolina could be impressive — perhaps reaching into the double digits.
Walter Shapiro (who I have long felt is one of the country’s best columnists from the days when I read his old column in USA Today) has two columns that help provide context for tonight. Here’s an excerpt from his Yahoo column pondering whether Gingrich has changed from the 90s. The boldfaces are inserted by me. Read the entire column for more details:
What gives the Gingrich candidacy heft is that, alone among the remaining Republican contenders, the former House speaker radiates a well-developed view of the presidency that goes beyond applause lines and stances on issues. If you listen carefully to Gingrich on the campaign trail, you can sense that he has thought about how to wield the powers of the office. In his stump speech, Gingrich declares: “I will sign between 100 and 200 executive orders on the first day within two hours of the inaugural address. The first will abolish all the White House czars.” There is something quintessentially Gingrichian about the numerical specificity of his projected 100 to 200 executive orders. The number may be entirely made up, but Gingrich conveys the impression that he could rattle them off in sequence.
Part of the Gingrich difference is that Newt understands, at least in theory, how to negotiate. Offering a slightly airbrushed account of the government shutdown in 1995 and 1996 that ended up strengthening Bill Clinton’s bargaining position, Gingrich said in Columbia: “Clinton and I had a rhythm: Hold a press conference and beat each other up–and then go to work. And we would sit in a meeting and he would say to me, ‘This is what I have to do and this is what I can do. Now what do you have to have and what can you do?'”
This is a world-shaking historical insight. (Whoops, I’m sounding like Newt). But, in truth, this is how smart politicians and presidents negotiate. They do not govern by fiat. They cannot unilaterally transform the tax code or automatically rewrite Medicare legislation. Instead, they get their political adversaries to set priorities: What is politically off-limits and what is negotiable? It is within those margins that legislation like welfare reform can not only pass Congress but also be signed into law by the president. Gingrich appears to understand that lesson, even though his ability to put it into practice remains debatable.
Gingrich’s stump speech offers another hint of the Newtonian laws of political compromise. In Columbia, he said that as president, “I would reach out to every Democrat [in Congress], not just the leadership.” Using as an example the efforts to revitalize the impoverished “corridor of shame” along the planned route of I-73 in South Carolina, Gingrich said that as president he would ask Democrats in Congress: “Do you want to help get it done or not? If not, I won’t call you. If you want to, we’re in business.” Again, this is how an activist president like Lyndon Johnson would use the levers of power: telling legislators, in effect, that you have to give to get.
As a presidential candidate, free-wheelin’ Newt offers the perfect counterpoint to PowerPoint Mitt. The real question as the race for the Republican nomination morphs from a cakewalk into a contest is whether there is indeed a New Newt, or whether Gingrich’s claim to newfound maturity is just another artful reinvention by the Great Survivor of Republican politics.
He has another column written from South Carolina from his main outlet, The New Republic, in which he asks why the media has consistently underestimated Gingrich. Some chunks of it:
Why have the media hordes been so consistently off-base in handicapping the GOP horserace? Virtually everyone from blonde midday cable TV anchors to polling gurus like Nate Silver (his January 16 blog post was headlined, “National Polls Suggest Romney Is Overwhelming Favorite for G.O.P. Nomination”) bought into the Mitt-placed confidence in Romney’s inevitability. Let me caveat that last point (hat tip: Al Haig): Romney remains the favorite for the nomination, but it is not likely to be the quickee January coronation that was forecast just a few days ago.
Part of the explanation for the bum predictions has been a false sense of historical determinism by political reporters who should know better based on Romney’s ersatz Iowa victory. (As recently as Wednesday night in Irmo, the candidate was still chortling over his now-vanished 8-vote validation in the caucuses). The coverage coming out of New Hampshire was so tilted towards a Romney cakewalk that the other candidates were consigned to Ron Paul spoiler territory..
But what reporters also missed (and this may be a generational issue) is how much slack South Carolina voters are giving Gingrich. Unless Newt is campaigning for the Hugh Hefner nostalgia vote, it is hard to see how he gains from his former wife claiming two days before the South Carolina primary that he wanted “an open marriage.” But I wonder if South Carolina Republicans have not already factored his marital misbehavior into their calculations about the entire package that you get when you vote for Gingrich. My emblematic voter on this score is Vicki Rutland, a pharmacist from Aiken, whom I interviewed Wednesday just before Newt spoke in nearly Warrenville. “As a Christian I don’t like that he’s on his third marriage and all the things that come with that,” she said, after talking about her own marriage of 31 years. “But we live in a modern world. And while it gives me pause, it won’t determine my vote.”
The fact is, the former House speaker personifies conservatism much as Ronald Reagan did in 1980. With two thirds of the state’s GOP electorate older than 45 (based on 2008 exit polls), voters remember that Newt was the most important Republican of the 1990s. His triumphs in a bleak decade for the GOP earn him a degree of latitude that will never be granted to Romney, no matter what hard-right positions Mitt takes in the quest for the nomination.
The danger, of course, in this hairpin-turn political season is to over-react to Gingrich’s momentum. Chip Felkel, a Greenville-based GOP political consultant who has not taken sides in the primary, reflected my view of the primary when he said, “It’s going to be close. The events of the last 72 hours mean that it could go either way.” Say what you will about Gingrich—and entire libraries can be written pro-and-con—he remains the most fascinating candidate of this political season. And while he probably will not get the nomination, rest assured that he will not exit the stage quietly. Not after his latest miraculous return from the great beyond.
When he got up Monday morning, Mitt Romney had a comfortable 23-point Gallup poll advantage over GOP presidential rivals Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum in national tracking polls.
By the end of the week, and as South Carolinians went to the polls in the first southern primary election, that margin had been cut by more than half to 10 points. Worse yet, some South Carolina polls had Romney dropping behind Gingrich – 26-32 percent in the latest Clemson University Palmetto Poll.
• Rick Perry dropped out and endorsed Gingrich – not only shifting at least some primary votes to the former House speaker but reducing the number of candidates among whom the more conservative vote likely would have been split to Romney’s advantage.
• On Monday and Thursday, Gingrich performed solidly in debates, winning standing ovations while Romney stumbled over questions about his wealth and the amount of income taxes he pays. Gingrich even turned what could have been an “open marriage” blow to his already-questionable marital history into a well-received blast at the “destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media.”
• It turned out that Santorum, not Romney, had won the most votes in the Iowa caucuses. In the overall scheme of things, it wasn’t a big deal. But it was a distraction that helped deflate Romney’s supposed front-runner status.
“Clearly things are collapsing” for Romney, Gallup’s Editor-in-chief Frank Newport told MSNBC.
“The margin for Romney has evaporated this week, and we believe that Gingrich will win the South Carolina primary,” says Clemson University political scientist Dave Woodard.
If he does lose, Romney’s squandering of a big lead will be talked about in the media for days — and years. Part of what seems to be going on, The Hill reports, is a major negative shift by Romney:
What’s wrong with Mitt Romney?
In the early stages of this cycle’s Republican nominating process, the former Massachusetts governor seemed confident and sure-footed. Now he seems awkward and defensive.
The strength of his debate performances in the summer and fall allowed him to swat aside challengers including Tim Pawlenty and Rick Perry.
Banishing memories of his halting 2008 campaign-trail persona, Romney propelled himself into a commanding position, victory almost within his grasp.
In recent weeks, however, the socially uncomfortable Romney from 2008 has been on display, and parodied on “Saturday Night Live” for watching football with his “five human sons.”
Romney seems to have gone into a defensive crouch, leaving many Republicans feeling like football fans who watch their team move to a ‘prevent defense’ to protect a fourth-quarter lead and dread losing all of it. Their nerves are being jangled even as they acknowledge that outright disaster has so far been averted.
“For some reason, he has slipped into this ‘I’m trying not to lose’ mode — and that’s when you do lose,” said Republican strategist Keith Appell, who is not aligned with any of this year’s presidential candidates.
It’s important not to overstate the perils Romney faces.
When you watch Romney these days, you have to wonder if he’s actually vanished and has been been replaced by Michael Scott (Steve Carell) from the TV show “The Office.”
But could there be some surprises?
Some more conservative leaders have come out for Santorum. An email press release:
Manassas, VA — ConservativeHQ.com Chairman Richard Viguerie announced Friday the first group of conservative leaders to join him in endorsing former Senator Rick Santorum for President:
“Last week some 150 conservative leaders gathered at Nancy and Paul Pressler’s ranch to discuss the Republican presidential campaign – there was an overwhelming 75 percent consensus to support Rick Santorum for President.
“The group of conservative leaders named in today’s release includes Dr. James Dobson, Gary Bauer, Joseph Farah, Foster Friess, Elaine Donnelly and many others representing all four segments of the new conservative coalition who are coalescing behind Rick Santorum’s candidacy.
“I’m pleased that, so quickly after Rick Perry suspended his campaign, I was able to announce the first bloc of conservative leaders who have come forward to endorse Rick Santorum.
“This list of endorsers demonstrates that Rick Santorum is the best candidate to bring together social conservatives, national defense conservatives, economic conservatives and the newly energized constitutional conservatives of the Tea Party.
“Rick Santorum is the only reliable conservative left in the race. He has a long involvement in the conservative movement, and he has demonstrated his commitment to hiring conservatives on his Senate staff and in his campaign. On the issues of vital importance to conservatives, such as the right to life, the pro-family agenda, national security, and fighting the growth of government, he has walked with us even when the path was hard.
“If conservatives want a conservative, not just another establishment Republican, nominated in Tampa and elected in November it is time for us to start concentrating on consolidating that winning four-part coalition behind one candidate. The candidate who best appeals to all four segments of the winning 2010 coalition, with the fewest negatives in November, is Rick Santorum.
“This is an encouraging sign that movement conservatives are finding their natural home in the Santorum campaign and are in fact coalescing behind Rick’s candidacy.”
The text of the endorsement and the list of endorsers released today follows:
“Conservatives are the largest ideological bloc in the American electorate. In this election cycle a number of candidates with legitimate claims to conservative support have considered or sought the Republican nomination for President, but this has left the conservative vote divided, empowering those who do not share our views and values. To defeat Barack Obama now is the time for conservatives to rally behind the most electable conservative candidate, and we believe that candidate is former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.
“In recognition of Rick Santorum’s character, judgment, and especially his commitment to institute an administration that will govern according to conservative principles, we the undersigned endorse former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum for President of the United States and pledge to advance his candidacy.”
President, Texas Eagle Forum
President, American Values
President, CatholicVote.org Candidate Fund
Businessman, philanthropist, and attorney
California Conservative Leader
Special Liaison Representative, Voice of the Martyrs
Radio Host and Commentator
Center for Military Readiness
Georgia Public Service Commission
Philanthropia, founder and chairman
William J. Estrada
Director, Generation Joshua
Editor and Chief Executive Officer, WND.com and WND Books
President, Fischer Furniture, Inc
President, Heritage Alliance
Institute for Marriage and Public Policy
Family PolicyLeader, Harrisburg, PA
Director of Institutional Partnerships, Open Doors USA
President, Rebecca Hagelin Communications and Marketing, LLC
Patrick and Toya Hall
Vice President, Guadalupe Radio Network
Producer of of the film “Bella”
Chairman of the Board, Capitol Resource Institute
Executive Director, Life Issues Institute
William J. Murray
Chairman, Religious Freedom Coalition
Texas Conservative Leader
Preston Noell III
President, Tradition, Family, Property, Inc.
President, Florida Prayer Network
Paul and Nancy Pressler
Justice, TX Court of App (ret)
Illinois State Representative 1977-1993
State President, Eagle Forum of Illinois
Pro-life activist and blogger
Florida Family Action
Texas Conservative Leader
Richard A. Viguerie
Meanwhile, in the ultimate example of how partisan spin can turn something that would be decried if it applied to someone in the other party into a supposed plus, an argument is ACTUALLY — no joke — ACTUALLY repeat again ACTUALLY being made that Gingrich’s three marriages would make him a stronger President. Really. Honestly. But would we see THIS FOX NEWS ARTICLE on the Fox News site if Gingrich had been a Democrat? (This is why many of us independents will remain independents). Does this mean that Obama needs to divorce and remarry three more times to be the strongest President ever? (Just wondering..)
And Gingrich has just received the endorsement of Chuck Norris. Yes. That Chuck Norris.
But one reason why top GOPer are uneasy about Gingrich at the head of the ticket is this fact: he has hugely high unfavorable ratings among the American public. Indeed, one fact in Gingrich’s political career is this: the closer he soars to the top the more arrogant he appears and the bottom line is that when voters in general get to really known Gingrich they don’t like him.
But the number one fact of the GOP race now is this: Romney is trending down in South Carolina and nationally, while Gingrich — baggage and all — is quickly trending up. Look the Gallup graph of its national poll:
South Carolina has a record of often picking the GOP’s Presidential nomination winner and changing the primary political game after its vote. Will it do this — or at least part of this again?
The betting from many analysts right now is that the Republican nomination battle could be in for a major shift in the conventional wisdom once the votes are counted tonight.
Graphic via shutterstock.com
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.