Some thoughts on the South Carolina results

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Newt Gingrich discusses America's enemies during the South Carolina GOP debate January 17, 2012.

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  • South Carolina GOP are fed up with uncritical coverage Obama has received from mainstream media

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  • Of those so concerned about electability, 51% voted for #Gingrich and 37% for #Romney in South Carolina

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  • Gingrich is plainly the best 'Annoy the Media' candidate @michaelbarone

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Annoy the media. In fall 1992 Robert McDowell, then a Washington lawyer and now a Republican appointee to the Federal Communications Commission, was angry about the media coverage of George H. W. Bush’s flagging campaign. On his own he printed up a bumper sticker that read, “Annoy the Media—Re-Elect Bush.” It was, I thought at the time, one of the stronger arguments advanced in the candidate’s behalf. But it was also, as the results of the election testify, far from decisive: Bush got just 37% of the popular vote and lost to Bill Clinton, who got 43%.

Going into the eleven days between the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, I expected (and wrote) that South Carolina Republicans would try to vote for the candidate they thought would be the winner of the nomination; victories in South Carolina clinched the Republican nominations for Bush 41, Bob Dole, Bush 43 and John McCain in 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2008.

That turned out to be wrong. In the January 16 and 19 debates, Newt Gingrich took on the media, sharply attacking questions put forward by Fox News’s Juan Williams and CNN’s John King, and in both cases got standing ovations from the audience—something I don’t remember any other candidate receiving in any presidential primary debate ever. This was not all Gingrich did to help himself in the debates, but I think the huge swing to Gingrich in the five days between the first debate and the election January 21—you can see the numbers here--owed more to his taking on the press than anything else.

South Carolina Republicans are fed up with the adulatory or at least uncritical coverage Barack Obama has received from mainstream media and were delighted to send them a message. Gingrich attempted to appeal to South Carolina tradition (“We pick presidents,” as state party Chairman Chad Connelly put it) by predicting that if he won in South Carolina he would win the nomination, and I thought that Sarah Palin’s advice that South Carolinians should vote for Gingrich to keep the race going would undercut his appeal. Wrong. They followed her advice, and now the campaign goes on.

"The pleasure of watching a undercriticized president get a sharp telling off is something they yearn to see, and something they think can win votes."--Michael Barone

Electability. South Carolina Republican voters tended to see Gingrich as the most electable candidate. According to the exit poll, 45% said “can defeat Obama” was the most important candidate quality, two to three times as many who picked one of the other alternatives (“right experience,” “strong moral character” and “true conservative”). Of those so concerned about electability, 51% voted for Gingrich and 37% for Romney. This despite the strong evidence that Gingrich is far less electable than Romney: Real Clear Politics shows Obama leading Romney in recent national polls by a statistically insignificant 47%-45%, while he leads Gingrich 51%-40%.

Moreover, as my Examiner colleague Conn Carroll pointed out in a Beltway Confidential blogpost on January 20, pungently titled “America hates Newt Gingrich,” Gingrich’s favorable/unfavorable ratio is terrible. Recent national polls by Fox News and PPP show that Barack Obama’s average fav/unfavs are 49%-48%, Mitt Romney’s are 40%-45% and Newt Gingrich’s are 26%-58%--lukewarm numbers for Obama and Romney, dreadful numbers for Gingrich. Note that only 16% are undecided about Gingrich. I expect his numbers will improve in the wake of South Carolina. But he has been a prominent national figure for nearly 20 years, and the impression he has made is (unfairly, I think, to at least some extent) very negative. To win a general election he faces an uphill climb with a heavy load of baggage.

Now I know that most South Carolina Republican voters are not faithful readers of Beltway Confidential or Real Clear Politics. But it’s still something of a mystery why so many think he’s a better general election candidate than Romney. My guess is that they have enjoyed seeing Gingrich rebuke the national media and they envision that he could somehow administer similar rebukes to Barack Obama in debate. They love it when Gingrich says he will challenge Obama to seven three-hour Lincoln-Douglas style debates, and will allow Obama to have a teleprompter. The pleasure of watching a undercriticized president get a sharp telling off is something they yearn to see, and something they think can win votes. But of course this is not a scenario we are likely to see: Obama will never agree to such a proposal, and there are limits to how sharply a challenger can rebuke an incumbent president (watch Bill Clinton in the 1992 debates to see how he observed those limits) without turning off voters and losing more votes than he gains.

Gingrich is plainly the best Annoy the Media candidate. But it’s not at all clear, however much South Carolina Republicans would like to think so, that he’s the most electable.

Turnout. In contrast to the Iowa caucuses, where turnout was up 3% from 2008, and the New Hampshire primary, where turnout was up 4% from 2008, there was a big turnout increase in South Carolina, from 445,377 in 2008 to (according to the latest figures) 600,953 in 2012. That’s a 35% increase, and it’s also a 5% increase over the record set in 2000, when turnout was 573,101. Primary turnout is as good as indicator as we can get of the level of enthusiasm of a party’s voters.

Republican primary turnout in the 2008 cycle was roughly half of that in Democratic primaries (and that’s counting only the races until the Republican nomination was decided in early March), and that turned out to be a good indicator of the low spirits and lack of enthusiasm for the party and its nominee in the fall. The near-stagnant turnout in Iowa and New Hampshire—two of the three states which switched parties between the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections—is a bad sign for the Republicans, cushioned only by the fact that polling suggests a huge decline in interest and enthusiasm among Democrats.

The turnout increase was greatest in York County, just south of Charlotte, North Carolina, and in the surrounding counties; in the coastal counties including Myrtle Beach, Pawleys Island and Hilton Head; and in the smaller counties in the northeast Pee Dee region. The first two groups of counties had robust population growth over the last decade. All the counties with big turnout increases delivered above-average percentages for Newt Gingrich except for Beaufort County (Hilton Head), which with its large Northern-origin population was Mitt Romney’s strongest county in the state.  

The increase in turnout in South Carolina is good news for Republicans, although not hugely good. It suggests a high level of enthusiasm and opposition to Barack Obama among South Carolina-type folks in North Carolina, which Obama carried narrowly in 2008 and which he is making a target this year, and in Virginia, which Obama carried by his national average and which, despite having voted for Republicans in every presidential race from 1968 to 2004, is something close to a must-carry state for Obama in 2012.

Exit poll tidbits. Newt Gingrich beat Mitt Romney among men 42%-26% and among women by significantly less, 38%-29%. Women tend to be more risk-averse, and so it makes sense that men tended to tilt more to Gingrich and Ron Paul and women more to Romney and Rick Santorum. Still, women did give Gingrich a significant margin, despite ABC’s Marianne Gingrich story.

Only 9% of South Carolina voters were under 30 and only 10% in their 30s: very low participation for people who will be voting for many years, and not a good sign for the Republican party. The 18-29s preferred Ron Paul to the other candidates, while those in their 30s went for Gingrich; but Mitt Romney ran fourth among them. He clearly has not captured the imagination of young voters and might want to think about how to connect better with them.

Romney tended to win upscale voters—those with graduate degrees, incomes over $200,000—and the three counties he carried all tend to have above average percentages of such voters—Charleston, Richland (Columbia) and Beaufort (Hilton Head). This matches the voting patterns in 2008 and in Iowa and New Hampshire, where Romney tends to run best in affluent areas with many highly educated professionals. So he does have a base, but it’s a limited demographic, resembling Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where he grew up.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI

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