Five: South Carolina presented the Republican-turnout surge we’ve been waiting for. At first glance, the stage seems set for a GOP fired up like never before: A president who many Republicans see as the breathing embodiment of liberalism sits in the Oval Office; an energetic grassroots movement to fight back spontaneously formed in the tea parties; the 2009 races in New Jersey and Virginia, the special election in Massachusetts, and the 2010 midterms all showed that Republicans can win (and win big) almost anywhere when they tap into that passion; the president’s record consists of enormously unpopular nationalized health care and a stimulus that didn’t make a dent in high unemployment. Throw in scandals such as those involving Solyndra and Fast and Furious, and Obama’s presidency represents the nightmare that every Republican would presumably be highly motivated to end.
The good news for Republicans is that, in 2012, turnout has been modestly higher, but less than one might think in this seeming perfect storm for conservative outrage. In Iowa and New Hampshire, the modest increases over the 2008 records appeared to have been driven mostly by Ron Paul’s not-really-Republican voters.
But in South Carolina, that energized grassroots finally appeared at polling places in big numbers: “With 13 precincts still uncounted Sunday morning, 601,166 votes already were recorded, topping 2000’s record turnout of 537,101 and well ahead of 2008’s 445,499 voters. Earlier in the week, officials had projected a moderate turnout about equivalent to the 2008 primary.” Both Gingrich and Romney won more votes than John McCain did when he won the state in 2008.
Five thoughts about the Republican presidential primary’s next big contest: Florida, on January 31.
One: So far, this election cycle is validating state efforts to move their primaries earlier. Each cycle, candidates, campaigns, media, and voters lament that the campaigns start ever earlier and that the general-election battle stretches on for too many months. But not only has no force in politics figured out how to stop this trend, but the current punishments imposed by the Republican National Committee have no significant effect.
The RNC punished five states that went “too early” by taking away half their delegates — New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida, Arizona, and Michigan — and yet no candidate pursued these states’ voters any less intently. Nor are there signs that anyone within those states seems to mind. (Iowa does not lose its delegates, because they are not officially allocated until the state convention in June.) The candidates showered New Hampshire with as much attention with twelve delegates at stake as they would have with 24 delegates at stake.
“What is coming to fruition is what we hoped for when we moved Florida’s date up to January 31,” said state representative Dean Cannon, the speaker of the Florida house of representatives. “The first three states are effectively whittling down the field, and Florida will be the one that ultimately decides the nominee. We are raising Florida’s prominence in deciding the nominee.”
Supporters of Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman, and Rick Perry outside the first three states never got a chance to cast a meaningful vote for their candidate. While all of the remaining candidates declare they’re in it for the long haul, those pledges can turn to vapor. (See Huntsman’s declaration in New Hampshire that he had “a ticket to ride.”) The race will undoubtedly go on beyond Florida, but the Sunshine State will either reestablish Romney as the frontrunner, or deliver a devastating defeat.