By the time the voting started yesterday in the South Carolina Republican primary, the collective judgment of the political class was that Newt Gingrich was all but certain to beat Mitt Romney badly — the only question was how badly. Plenty of prognosticators, including Impolitic, predicted that Gingrich would win by a double-digit margin, as he did (the final spread was 12 points, on a 40 to 28 percent split)*. But virtually no one would have dared venture a forecast of a blowout as abject and total as the one that indeed took place.
Take a gander at the exit polls if you like — they really are quite something. What they show is that Gingrich beat Romney soundly across the board: 42–26 with men and 38–29 with women; by nine or more points in every age cohort; by double digits in every educational cohort except those voters with postgraduate study (which Romney won by a bare two points); among both married and unmarried voters; among the poor, the middle class, and the rich; among Republicans and independents; among the very conservative and the somewhat conservative, losing only (by just five points) among self-described moderates or liberals; among tea party backers, God-squadders, Protestants, and Catholics; among those most concerned about beating Barack Obama, about being a true conservative, and about having the right experience for the job of president; among late deciders and early deciders; and especially dramatically among those for whom the debates were important.
Back in 2008, after Obama lost the Ohio and Texas primaries and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright controversy erupted, his campaign manager David Plouffe remarked privately that his guy was about to experience his “turn in the barrel.” Well, after a year of being perched in the catbird seat, Romney now faces, over the next nine days in Florida, his first (though maybe not his last) time in the oaken cask. Herewith five realities as we head into what promises to be the most intense and consequential primary thus far:
1. Contrary to the received wisdom up until now, Gingrich is the favorite in the Sunshine State. Yes, Romney has the financial advantage. Yes, he has been on the air with ads for weeks. Yes, there has been early voting in Florida under way for weeks, too, during which time Romney’s air of inevitability will have given him an edge. But Florida is a closed primary, the first contest so far in which only registered Republicans are allowed to cast ballots. And the state’s GOP voters are far more conservative and anti-Establishment than many people understand. This is especially true in the panhandle of northern Florida, where Gingrich is likely to take up residence for much of the time between now and the vote on January 31. But watch for Gingrich to play hard for the state’s Hispanic voters — and not just the Cuban-Americans who are thick on the ground in South Florida but also the polyglot Latino population around Orlando — by emphasizing his stance on immigration, which is notably more moderate than Romney’s. Between all this and the wave of momentum and free media coverage he’ll enjoy coming out of South Carolina, the former speaker, I think, has the upper hand, though not by a lot.
2. To fend off Gingrich and regain his status as the front-runner, Romney needs to “refine his message, not sharpen his knives,” as the influential conservative blogger Erik Erickson puts it. The Romney people, however, are instinctively inclined to do the opposite. Incredulous at the notion that anyone on God’s green earth could ever take Gingrich seriously as the Republican nominee, their plan is to step up their attacks on him, beginning at the debate in Tampa tomorrow night. There are two obvious problems with this strategy, though: (a) When it comes to wallowing around in the mud, Gingrich is King Hog, while Romney isn’t even a pig farmer in waders—he’s the CEO of the agribusiness conglomerate that owns the place, worried about getting any flecks of dirt on his starched white shirt; and (b) Gingrich’s rise represents as much as anything a rejection of Romney, his themeless pudding of a campaign, and the Establishment support of it. At Romney’s final rally in Charleston on Friday, which I wrote about yesterday, he ended his speech by declaiming, “I love this land, I love its Constitution, I revere its founders, I will get America back to work, and I’ll make sure that we remain the shining city on the hill.” It would be hard to conjure a stanza less suited to rousing the hot-eyed Republican base of 2012 than that.
3. Romney needs to get comfortable, and quick, in talking about money — his, that is. In South Carolina, his handling of the calls to release his tax returns was something like a slow-motion train wreck. This morning, Romney quickly moved to defuse the issue by announcing he will release his 2010 returns and estimates for 2011 on Tuesday. This was smart and necessary, but does nothing to address the deeper problem, which is Romney’s obvious awkwardness when questioned about his personal wealth and, to a lesser extent, his background at Bain, and also the unfortunate appearance he gives of being out of touch with the lives of monetary mortals. From “corporations are people” and “I like being able to fire people” to, most recently, his comments that he made “not much” money in speaking fees when they in fact totaled $374,327 last year, Romney has done much to paint an image of himself as a combination of Gordon Gekko and Richie Rich. No doubt this will be a bigger problem in a general election (if he gets there) than in a Republican nomination fight—but heading into Florida and Nevada, where the jobless rates are 10 and 13 percent respectively and the median income is roughly what Romney gets paid for one speech, no one should think it’s not a vulnerability with the increasingly blue-collar GOP electorate.
4. If Gingrich wins Florida, the Republican Establishment is going to have a meltdown that makes Three Mile Island look like a marshmallow roast. Why? Because the Establishment will be staring down the barrel of two utterly unpalatable choices. On the one hand, Gingrich's national favorable-unfavorable ratings of 26.5 and 58.6 percent, respectively make him not just unelectable against Obama but also mean that he would likely be a ten-ton millstone around the necks of down-ballot Republican candidates across the country. And on the other, Romney will have shown in two successive contests—one in a bellwether Republican state, the other in a key swing state—an inability to beat his deeply unpopular rival. If this scenario unfolds, the sound of GOP grandees whispering calls for a white knight, be it Indiana governor Mitch Daniels (who, conveniently, is delivering the Republican response to Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night) or Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan or even Jeb Bush, will be deafening.
5. No matter who wins Florida, the race is now destined to go on a good long time. Again, why? Because Romney has plenty of money (and can always pump in more of his own should the need arise) to go on all the way to June; because this is his last chance to be president, for there will be no third time around for a two-time loser; and because he believes that he alone has the organizational muscle and fortitude to go the distance. As for Gingrich, his near-100 percent national name I.D. and his magnetlike capacity to draw free media coverage will give him the ability to compete around the country even if his financial and organizational deficits remain. Also, his sense of himself as a man of destiny and world-historical significance — who, as the Romney campaign cheekily pointed out, has compared himself to Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Henry Clay, Charles De Gaulle, William Wallace, Pericles, The Duke Of Wellington, Thomas Edison, Vince Lombardi, The Wright Brothers, Moses, and “a viking” — compels it. Oh, and also: the two men, Gingrich and Romney, are quickly coming to hate each other. So buckle up; this should be fun.