Yes, there was a Gingrich surge in South Carolina and, yes, the debates really, really mattered. According to the exit polls, more than half the voters in Saturday’s primary said they made up their minds within the last few days, and these voters went for Newt Gingrich over Mitt Romney by 2-to-1. About two-thirds of the voters said the debates were an important factor in their vote, and they went for Gingrich 5-to-2 over Romney.
Here’s a bet that although Romney has agreed to Monday’s NBC debate, he will try to minimize debates in the future. Gingrich may or may not become the nominee. But you can already crown him the King of Debates.
I’ll have more to say about the primary in my column on Monday, but it’s worth making two paradoxical points.
On the one hand, Romney is obviously right that he has plenty of life left in him. Florida, which votes next, on Jan. 31, is a state won by media, and Romney has already spent some $3 million on television ads and he’ll spend plenty more And a significant number of votes in that primary have already been cast because the state allows early voting. Many of those ballots were cast before the Gingrich surge, and Romney has organized to win the early vote.
On the other hand, Romney had an absolutely terrible week. He has still not figured out how to talk about money or his taxes. His claim to be the most electable candidate will be dented by his shellacking in South Carolina, and by his performance there. Before South Carolina, he seemed like the best-organized and steadiest candidate. Now, his flaws as a candidate are very much on the on the minds of Republican voters. He needs to retool quickly. Already, as his concession speech tonight showed, he’s ready to get very aggressive against Newt Gingrich.
Rick Santorum has reason to feel legitimately resentful. He ought to sue the Iowa Republican Party for damages. The Iowa GOP seemed eager to declare Romney the victor on the basis of a flawed count and an eight-vote margin. They did not complete their recanvassing of the vote until late this week and didn’t declare Santorum the victor until the eve of the primary. Had Santorum been declared the winner the day after Iowa, a lot of things might have been turned out differently.
If Santorum does stay in the race, it’s possible that in Florida and other future primaries, he might hurt Romney more than Gingrich. That seems counter-intuitive, since Santorum and Gingrich up to now have been splitting anti-Romney conservative votes. But there’s also an anti-Gingrich vote, and in the future, Santorum might take some of those ballots away from Romney. In South Carolina, about a fifth of the voters said they chose their candidate because he had “strong moral character.” Almost none of these voters (somewhere around six percent) voted for Gingrich. These voters put Santorum first, Ron Paul second and Romney third. Without Santorum on the ballot, many more of them would likely have voted for Romney.
But the very fact that we are now even talking about the importance of an anti-Gingrich vote is a commentary on how much the former Speaker — who has not won an election since 1998 — has shaken up the Republican Party tonight.