CHARLESTON, S.C. – Before a discussion of what happened in the South Carolina Republican presidential primary Saturday, you should know this: The Palmetto State isn’t filled with right-wing, tea party nutcases. Sure, we have a fair share of them, but there are progressives here too.
Compare yesterday’s results to those of four years ago when now President Barack Obama faced Hillary Clinton and John Edwards in the South Carolina Democratic presidential primary. In that election, which propelled Obama toward wrapping up the nomination and showed he was a real contender, some 532,000 people voted with Obama reaping 55.4 percent of the votes (295,214).
In yesterday’s GOP primary, about 600,000 people voted, including 243,398, or 40 percent, for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and 167,957 (28 percent) for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Look at our politics another way. Just 15 months ago, tea party favorite Nikki Haley, an Indian-American Republican, barely beat a moderate Democrat to become the state’s governor. Bottom line: South Carolina, the state where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, long has had a streak of political independence. And while the state is fairly Republican, there are a sizable number of folks who don’t have knee-jerk, anti-government reactions at the drop of a hat.
So what propelled Gingrich to victory in South Carolina when just a week ago it looked like Romney had the nomination wrapped up? Answer: The red meat of angry rhetoric thrown to a malleable, frustrated GOP electorate looking for a tough candidate to take on Obama.
Ever since Romney’s win in New Hampshire, he has been in the crosshairs for the very thing he was touting as his strength — his business experience. In South Carolina, a barrage of nasty super-PAC ads combined with Romney’s squishy, distanced reactions to questions about how much in taxes he paid and how his venture company disemboweled some companies it took over were enough to cause GOP voters to doubt Romney’s ability to beat Obama.
And while the thrice-married Gingrich faced a last-minute allegation from his second ex-wife that he wanted an “open marriage,” he flipped media interest in her interview by challenging an easy target — the media — as being too intrusive. With body language displaying the political frustration of many voters in the South Carolina audience, Gingrich said, “The destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office, and I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.” The audience erupted in applause with Gingrich later adding he was “tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans.”
It was classic Gingrich. As he did for years while slogging through the GOP trenches before rising to power, he reframed the political debate in his favor. Look at the words he naturally used: “destructive,” “vicious,” “negative,” “govern,” “decent,” “appalled” and “elite.” They’re literally right out of his 30-year-old playbook on framing political debate in which he counseled people who wanted to “talk like Newt” to distinguish their rhetoric and politics by offering “optimistic, positive governing words” and “contrasting, negative words.”
Newt played South Carolina, a state with one of the nation’s highest jobless rates, like a master conductor by going after Romney, Obama and anything that got in his way as Romney faltered and displayed weakness.
So what happens now? The circus moves to Florida where it essentially becomes a two-way race for the soul of the Republican Party. Establishment Republicans likely are shaking in their boots that Gingrich, who has very high negatives of around 60 percent, may become their candidate. If they want Romney to win and keep from impaling himself from the comfortable lead in the polls that he has — just like he had in South Carolina — they’ll have to take a page from Newt’s songbook and communicate much more effectively.
But don’t look for Gingrich to go away quietly. The only thing keeping him from wrapping up the nomination soon is the very thing that is his strength — his mouth. Combined with his dirigible-sized ego, many expect Gingrich to implode because of some pompous, elitist thing that he says. And that scares them to death because they think his mouth will kill their chances at winning the White House.
One thing is for sure — the fat lady hasn’t sung. And this thing may be a long way from over, which helps Obama more than anyone else.
Andy Brack is a syndicated South Carolina political columnist who publishes StatehouseReport.com, a weekly policy and politics forecast. He also is president of the Center for a Better South (bettersouth.org), a progressive Southern think tank. Photo: Gage Skidmore via his flickr photostream and used under creative commons license.