by Elvin Lim
Newt Gingrich has won the biggest primary prize up for grabs so far. Romney’s win in New Hampshire has been discounted because he’s from neighboring Massachusetts, while poor Rick Santorum’s newly declared victory in Iowa was quickly eclipsed by the news about Rick Perry dropping put of the race, ABC’s interview with Gingrich’s ex-wife, and the scuffle over Romney’s tax returns. This is a huge victory for Gingrich because every winner in South Carolina since 1980 has gone on to win the nomination. So Gingrich is now the conservative alternative to Romney.
Volatility, though, has been the hallmark of the nomination race this year, and there is no reason to think this will change. The higher quantity of debates has helped Gingrich build a momentum in the last week — as has his superPAC — and both are new developments from the last cycle. For the first time in modern history, the Republicans have picked a different winner for each of the first three states. For the first time ever, the Republicans are going to nominate either a Mormon (Romney) or a Catholic (Gingrich). This denominational diversity reveals a conservative electorate much more concerned about the economy than about social values, which was the major issue just eight years ago. Finally, the loyal supporters of Ron Paul are a wild card, because no one knows to whom they will turn when Paul finally bows out — and he intends to to hang around. All told, there are 1150 delegates to get to earn the nomination, so this race pushes on at least until the Spring.
Gingrich did not win in South Carolina because of “electability” as the SC exit polls misleadingly say; he won because of the rage that South Carolinians believe is necessary to take on Obama. Gingrich received the first standing ovation in the debates so far when he observed that more people had been put on food stamps under Obama than under any other president – a line he has been repeating in the last week. Obama will not and cannot receive credit for whatever he has done because his very presence in the White House is perceived by some conservatives as a criminalization of the the state in the service of socialism. This newly rediscovered “southern strategy” worked in South Carolina and it may well work beyond.
Gingrich is in a good position but not a front-leading one, however. He will not enjoy the native-son-of-the-South advantage in Florida as he did in South Carolina, so the next contest is going to be important for him to prove his viability. He would need a huge infusion of cash to be able to afford the television ads he or his superPAC will need to run in Florida. Gingrich won’t be able to sustain his momentum with just the free media, though the two debates last week will help. For now, Romney still enjoys a lead because Florida’s electorate is older and less evangelical than in South Carolina. Early voting has already started in Florida, and will continue until the 28th, so Romney’s initial lead there would help him.
It is also worth noting that Romney is the only candidate who has done well in all three states. He is still, therefore, the frontrunner. But he cannot afford any more mis-steps. The tax returns questions from the media was just poorly handled, and Romney has stuttered repeatedly on a question for which he should have been more than prepared (as Gingrich was about ABC’s interview with his ex-wife). Romney’s fundamental problem, paradoxically, is that he is a happy, privileged man. He has no axe to grind, no grievances — not even with the liberals and the feds. Worse still, he doesn’t even perform anger very well, and that is why he could not gain traction in South Carolina. Romney is going to have to go after Gingrich’s ethics violations, Fannie and Freddie Mac associations, and his multiple marriages; while Gingrich is going to go after Romney’s Bain history, his healthcare positions in Massachusetts, and his tax returns. Things will have to get much uglier before the results of the nomination contest become clearer. And so onward toward the Sunshine State we go.
Elvin Lim is Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears here each week.