By: Wes Robinson
Well, things just got a lot more interesting in the GOP nomination race. The South Carolina primary on January 21st was supposed to have been the walk-off home run for Mitt Romney’s nomination chances. It was supposed to have been the day Gingrich, Santorum, and (then) Perry handed Romney the Nomination Crown in a media circus, surrounding their de facto nominee with their support and PAC contributions. At least that’s what it looked like the week before the vote…just a week out Romney was touting the rarest of accomplishments by winning both the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. With a double-digit lead in many polls, Romney thought he was about to take the Triple Crown of presidential primary politics with a victory in South Carolina.
However, with two lackluster debate performances by Romney in comparison with the firecracker performances of Gingrich, and with news breaking that Rick Santorum was the actual winner in the Iowa caucus, Romney’s poll numbers seemed to drop by the hour. Just two days before the election the once flavor-of-the-week candidate Rick Perry dropped out of the race, endorsing Gingrich on the spot. After a slew of last minute endorsements, Gingrich looked poised to upset Romney despite a high profile interview with one of Gingrich’s ex-wives. Somehow Gingrich turned the comments from his wife regarding a request for an open marriage into a positive rise in the polls during the debate Friday evening, lashing out at John King and CNN for even asking a question about his ex-wife’s interview.
Newt was probably feeling pretty good throughout the day with how well he was likely to do as exit polls began to show some indication of the good news to come that evening once the polls closed. However, a 12-point victory of the clear frontrunner of a week prior is not just a victory, it’s a huge victory for Gingrich and his campaign team — to garner 40% of the votes in the state that has predicted the eventual GOP nominee since 1980.
So what does this mean moving forward? The next primary, to be held in Florida on January 31st, is essential to each candidate as they begin to prepare for a two-man race from here on out. Santorum and Paul will likely stay in the race even after Florida (unless Paul upsets Santorum) even though, for all practical purposes, a chance at the nomination is almost negligible in realistic terms. In South Carolina, candidates spent a reported record of $13 million on advertising. Expect to see high spending levels again in Florida with more aggressive messages from the Romney campaign, a tactic that worked well for Romney in diminishing Gingrich’s initial surge that came weeks ago. Romney will almost certainly have more resources compared with Gingrich, but as we have seen in Iowa and South Carolina, this does not necessarily translate into victories. I would also expect to see the party elites in Romney’s corner go after Gingrich more aggressively than Gingrich’s will go after Romney. Governor Chris Christie has already made news by calling Gingrich, “an embarrassment to the party”, for the way Gingrich attacked Romney’s business practices while at Bain Capital.
While the polls have not yet reflected the true impact of Gingrich’s South Carolina victory, expect them to change significantly initially and to fluctuate throughout the week. Again Romney had a double-digit lead a week prior to the contest; however, this will, in my opinion, shrink dramatically. While Florida is in many ways more moderate than South Carolina, poll data on the coming reelection of incumbent democratic Senator Bill Nelson may show a more conservative shift for the 2012 election. Bill Nelson, who has been serving for just over a decade, is facing a tough reelection battle against Conservative Congressman Connie Mack, with some polls indicating that Mack has been gaining on Nelson recently (who currently has just a 2.7 point lead over Mack according to the RealClearPolitics Average). If this is any indicator of a conservative preference shift, I would expect Gingrich to look especially attractive to Floridians after the whopping he gave Romney just two states away. The Florida primary is going to be much too close to call right now, and I would not be surprised to find it that way even midway through election day. However, if Newt taught us anything in South Carolina, he taught us not to bet against him, and I would not be surprised in the least to see a Gingrich upset again. Now that Romney has committed to the debates in Florida, look for a slugfest leading up to the election at the end of the month.