Over a fantastic meal at Husk in Charleston, old fashioned cocktails at the Gin Joint, cigars on East Bay and a classic low-country breakfast this morning - can you tell this is a great place? - I posed the same question to several local South Carolina friends: why Newt? What can explain the rise of Newt Gingrich here in South Carolina, to the point where he may very well win today?
As I am sure all you smart Ricochet folks know full well, South Carolina historically has been a place where the leading candidate confirms their position and marks the last gasp of any opponents. It has voted for every Republican nominee since 1980, even in 2008, when Mike Huckabee came close to beating McCain. The fact that it's the home for many a desperate last stand is one of the reasons the state is a petri dish for dirty tricks and last minute surprises - but that historical record makes it all the more stunning to think that Gingrich, who came in fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire, could pull off a win here after the polls close in an hour's time.
So what's the explanation? The assessment I heard from friends and compatriots was interesting. A caveat acknowledging bias, before this decidedly unscientific listing of views: everyone I asked had voted for Huckabee or McCain in 2008 (Romney came in fourth here then, so his voters from 08 are fewer in number anyway). With that said, here are the three areas that stood out to me:
The Media Battle. Nearly every person brought up of their own volition the idea that in order to beat President Obama in November, the Republican candidate will have to endure a barrage of attacks from the liberal media, who will be dedicated to his reelection. We're all familiar with Gingrich's longstanding jousting matches with moderators and journalists, but this is different than just that - it's skepticism that Romney can withstand the similar pressure. The last two debates have hurt Romney a great deal on this account, if they are to be believed. One line from a Charleston friend: "Romney had this whole teflon thing going for a while but now I think they would tear him apart."
Via email, Josh Trevino raised a point about this that I think is very accurate:
Conservatives (accurately) perceive the media mainstream to be a de facto organ of the liberal left, and by extension, the Democratic Party - and they understand that conservative governance is absolutely impossible unless that organ is defeated or co-opted. On the latter count, ask President John McCain how his co-option efforts went. When Newt Gingrich crushes a hapless journalist, he isn't just tossing up a parlor trick: he's demonstrating an indispensable prerequisite to conservative governance today.
For a state that has seen more than its fair share of media games - and in fact just elected Governor Haley in spite of widespread (and quite personal) attacks from the local media - this is a point that resonates all the more.
The Importance of the Debates. Gingrich initially rose, and Perry fell, due to the overabundance of debates this cycle. Everyone - and again, Thursday's debate was in Charleston - cited this as significant, and Gingrich's performances in the past two debates have impressed them even as Romney (hounded by Santorum on Romneycare, meandering on his tax returns) turned in arguably two of his worst performances. Consider: both Gingrich and Romney saw the questions coming - Gingrich on his ex-wife, Romney on his tax returns. One was prepared to defend himself, and one seemingly was not. That apparently resonated, and not just with my friends, as Chris Cilizza of the Washington Post points out today:
Exit polls from #scprimary: Two-thirds of voters say recent debates were the most or one of most impt issues in deciding vote. AMAZING.
Indeed. And as much as people cited the positives from Gingrich's performance, there was much more concern expressed about Romney's negative performances. The rationale is simple: what if Romney can't hack it in a debate with Obama? Failing to mount a defense of conservatism on the debate stage and in the public square - a failure that reminds conservatives of much of the worst moments of George W. Bush's tenure - was one of the most significant reasons Rick Perry is back home in Texas today. Conservatives have no interest in people who become shrinking violets on the stage. Consider this quote from an evangelical voter in The State, the largest newspaper here:
"No one does not have baggage. Newt's was just exposed more because of his time in politics," she said. "I think it's time for a bulldog president. Grab 'em by the pants leg and don't let go until you draw blood. That's Newt."
But there's more here than just the power of words. Here's an email from a non-South Carolinian on this point, which I heard echoed in their views:
The whole reason why former Perry/Cain/Bachmann/Pawlenty/Santorum supporters are giving Newt a hearing is that they reject the notion that a guy with Romney's record is a conservative, and they recognize that since 1964 the GOP's losses in national races have all come from the party's moderate wing... Newt has a record. It is not one of unbroken conservative success, but it is a record of a great electoral triumph and some significant policy accomplishments at a time when Newt was the party's de facto national leader and the Left's #1 target. That record of being the Man in the Arena with the scars to show for it gives him a credibility behind his rhetoric that, say, a Herman Cain would not have.
Most members of the pundit class view the arrows in Newt's back as election problems. They probably are for any potential general. But to the conservative base that makes up much of the electorate in a red state like this, those battle scars are viewed as an asset, not a liability - a sign that there's principle behind the words, not just poll-testing.
Questioning Mitt's Message. While Gingrich was speaking to a raucous crowd of 700+ in Orangeburg yesterday, Mitt Romney was giving his standard stump speech at a more subdued rally in North Charleston, which just lacked any real energy (and was prefaced, oddly, by a band playing Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide" and Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a Changing" - the last time I heard those at a rally, I'm pretty sure it was Clinton-Gore 1996). He has bused in many younger volunteers from out of state who are more passionate, but the stump speech was the same old, same old. The journalists who have heard it a hundred times find this honed perfection boring; I find it certainly passable, but by no means inspiring.
Is this a problem? Well, it could be. One of my friends specifically directed me to this Laura Ingraham interview with Romney yesterday, where the former governor advanced his general election argument on jobs and why he should beat Obama. The political challenge: what if the economy starts to look up by Election Day, even just thanks to modest improvement in the numbers, and even if it's in spite of Obama's policies, not because of them? Here's what Ingraham asked:
INGRAHAM: Isn't that a hard argument to make if you're saying -- Okay, he inherited this recession, and he took a bunch of steps to try to turn the economy around, and now we're seeing some more jobs, but vote against him anyway? Isn't that a hard argument to make? Is that a stark enough contrast?
ROMNEY: Have you got a better one, Laura? [laughter] It just happens to be the truth.... at some point it's going to get better, but I don't think President Obama's helping it.
That is just not a good enough message, and it's not a principled one, my friend pointed out - and he's right. Electability concerns for Gingrich are well in evidence, but if Romney's only argument is reduced to "pay no attention to improving numbers," that sounds like a losing approach. There has to be a more principle-focused rationale to take to the voters.
By way of contrast: Gingrich has shared a message based around that rationale in large part because of the specific way he talks about "jobs" - not rattling off statistics as Perry and others did and do, but by expressing what having a job means, often in terms that are very specific to the locality he's in (unlike Romney, Gingrich's stump speech is very localvore). This example from the most recent debate features a line Gingrich has been repeating on the stump here across the state: "Elect us and your kids will be able to move out because they’ll have work." It is aspirational talk, not spreadsheet talk, and in the South, that sells.
Two quick practical notes, in addition to all this:
Romney's money advantage mitigated? South Carolina has been absolutely blanketed with ads. More than $13 million has been spent on TV there, which is an astonishing amount for the state - every time you turn on the TV, it seems like one's running from the various Super PACs. The mailboxes are just as clogged. But in contrast to Iowa, the anti-Romney and anti-Gingrich ad content seems to be roughly equivalent (partly because Romney's ads are only attacking Gingrich now, and Santorum and Gingrich are both attacking Romney). Being at parity on this front hurts Romney a bit I'd think.
Which endorsements matter? The endorsements that came to Romney last time and this time are not doing much to move people. Jim DeMint has not endorsed Romney, and while Governor Nikki Haley has (as did Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell this week), she's still a controversial figure here who doesn't have strong poll numbers. Much of the legislature's conservative leadership, contra Haley, has jumped in to endorse Newt, along with many of Jon Huntsman's backers. None of my friends mentioned any endorsements as influencing them one way or the other, though one did say he was surprised popular Rep. Tim Scott did not endorse anyone, and a few remarked about their decision being easier without Perry and Huntsman in the race. This GQ article notes the reaction of some conservative South Carolina congressmen to Haley's endorsement:
Mulvaney says, "So here's the $64,000 question that I'm sure GQ would love an answer to, and I'm going to try to ask it in a way that won't get any of us in trouble: Nikki Haley's endorsement more helpful in state, or out of state?"
"Out of state," Duncan says quickly. Gowdy is emphatic. "OUT. OF. STATE."
In sum: South Carolinians are wary of nominating another uninspiring moderate guy who can't defend himself or conservatism in the public square. They've seen these candidates, and their ads, for more than a week now. And with a field down to four, the momentum is swinging Newt's way because of his ability to defend himself, his record, and conservative ideas in the debates and the public square. This is something the voters I spoke to believe is essential for any nominee - and it is something that, at least in this state, Romney has failed to do.