Five key factors in what happened this weekend in the South Carolina primary, and five key factors in what will occur eight days from now in the Florida primary:
One: The rapidity of the Romney collapse. Since the race began to take shape in early-to-mid 2011, Mitt Romney has been mocked for having a glass jaw. In both Iowa and New Hampshire, Romney and his backers could scoff at the claim, pointing out that he had (seemingly) won Iowa and overwhelmingly won New Hampshire, not to mention that polls showed him leading in South Carolina and Florida, as well as nationally. Of the first 40 Republican-primary polls released by any pollster, either nationwide or in any state in 2012, Mitt Romney led 38 of them.
And then — POOF! At one point, Romney led Gingrich by ten percentage points in the Real Clear Politics
average; on Saturday he lost by twelve percentage points. Nationally, he led Gingrich by 23 in the Gallup national tracking poll
; on Sunday, he led Gingrich by five.
What’s even more striking is that the issues that tripped up Romney were so predictable and, seemingly, mundane — compared with, say, bombshell claims from an ex-wife or claims of sexual harassment or a seemingly off-the-cuff remark that a vaccine causes retardation. Romney was flayed over both the alleged layoffs at companies purchased and managed by Bain Capital, and the issue of his unreleased tax returns. Both of these topics were big issues not merely in Romney’s 2002 gubernatorial campaign, but his 1994 Senate run. How does a candidate get blindsided by 18-year-old handicaps?
Two: How far bashing the mainstream media has taken Newt Gingrich. It was a sly joke on primary night: Will Gingrich thank Marianne Gingrich, Juan Williams, or John King first? But, as with most jokes, we laugh because it contains a kernel of truth.
Juan Williams suggested that, because the African-Americans he heard from were offended by Gingrich’s comments about inner-city youth, the former speaker owed them an apology. Newt slam-dunked it, sneering that liberals cannot handle “facts that are inconvenient,” such as the number of Americans who on food stamps during Obama’s presidency. The knee-jerk accusations of racism are perhaps the aspect of the modern Left that infuriates grassroots conservatives most, and, in Gingrich, they saw the fearless, unapologetic rebuke to that thinking they had been yearning to hear for years.
Marianne Gingrich’s claim, and John King’s opening debate question about it, should have, on paper, created bigger headaches for Gingrich. But the former speaker knows, as almost any Republican with any memory from before 2008 knows, that these stories have a context. Nearly every conservative marveled at the media’s excuse-making for Bill Clinton throughout his presidency, the astonishing disinterest in John Edwards’s philandering on the 2004 campaign trail, and the ridiculous way Eliot Spitzer was seemingly instantly rewarded with a prime-time television show. Newt’s response was, in effect, that the only reason King — and the rest of the media — cares about his ex-wife’s claims is that he is a Republican, not that it is inherently newsworthy.
Of course, Gingrich’s dudgeon leaves a few questions open: If a former spouse of a presidential candidate makes a head-turning claim, should the media not report it? Should they not ask the candidate about it? And, if it’s outrageous to make this topic the first question of the debate, how many minutes into the debate should the subject have been broached?
Gingrich even cast his victory as a message to the media in his victory speech on Saturday night: “In the two debates that we had — here in Myrtle Beach and then in Charleston — people reacted so strongly to the news media. I think it was something very fundamental that I wish the powers that be in the news media would take seriously.”