In the week before the South Carolina primary, Newt Gingrich was averaging 22 percent in the polls, per Real Clear Politics, and trailing Mitt Romney by six points. But when the vote was tallied on Saturday, Gingrich had won 40 percent of the vote to Romney’s 28 percent. What had happened to give Gingrich such a gigantic boost?
Talking to voters at Gingrich campaign events in the Palmetto State in the days before and the day of the primary, I heard plenty of enthusiasm about the two debates that preceded the vote — and for the feisty, take-no-prisoners persona that Gingrich projected on screen. But I also heard concerns about Romney and Rick Santorum, and a belief that Gingrich was not just a debater, but an experienced politician who had already proved that he could smash through Washington’s gridlock and achieve significant legislative victories.
Take the case of Barbara Young, whom I met Saturday morning at Tommy’s Country Ham House in Greenville, S.C. This was the restaurant at which both Gingrich and Romney had scheduled simultaneous visits, and its parking lot was jammed with excited supporters of both candidates waving signs. (In the end, the two candidates did not visit at the same time.) Young, a housewife from Travelers Rest, S.C., was holding a Newt sign, but said she had been seriously considering Romney earlier in the cycle. Part of what appealed to her about Gingrich was his honesty about his past failings. “I’m just afraid that Mr. Romney — there’s going to be something brought up in the bigger campaign,” she said, adding she didn’t know exactly what could come out. Romney, she added, was “just a little too slick.”
Another factor that likely hurt Romney this week was “Winning Our Future,” the super PAC backing Gingrich that hit the airwaves in South Carolina. In Iowa, Gingrich was fending off negative attacks ads from both Ron Paul and the Romney super PAC, “Restore Our Future.” Now, it was payback time. Listening to conservative talk radio in South Carolina, I heard over and over again an ad that featured a clip of Romney saying that, if an underage girl couldn’t get permission from her parents for an abortion, she could ask a judge for permission. At Mutt’s BBQ on Thursday, Greenville resident Claire Stancik told me she had seen the ad and was troubled by it. “I didn’t like that abortion business, that judge being able to override a parent’s decision on abortion for their child,” she said. “I heard his voice say it.”
But what about Santorum? The news that he had won Iowa seemed to have come too late to influence South Carolinians. Michael Lemocks, who was at Gingrich’s Chick-fil-A rally on Saturday with his wife and young son, had been wavering between Santorum and Gingrich in the weeks before the election. Ultimately, he opted for Gingrich. “I see a passion in Newt Gingrich that I don’t see in Santorum,” he said, saying that Gingrich had something akin to a “fire deep within the gut” when it came to halting President Obama’s promised “fundamental transformation of America” and changing the country’s course.
Larry Wilson, whom I also met at that Chick-fil-A, seems like the sort of voter Santorum should have easily nabbed. Wilson, the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Liberty, S.C., identifies as a social conservative. He’s not thrilled about Gingrich’s personal background (“his multiple marriages grieve my heart”), but views Gingrich as more likely to win the nomination than Santorum. Wilson did look at Santorum after Rick Perry (his first choice) started falling in the polls, but he was alarmed that Santorum wasn’t polling higher: “I felt that I would be wasting my vote to vote for a candidate not getting a high percentage,” he says, concluding that a Santorum vote would have effectively boosted Romney.
Plus, Wilson genuinely likes Gingrich, whom he describes as a “fiscal conservative,” and as “brilliant.” He views him as someone who’s likely to help, and notes that top evangelicals, such as Tim LaHaye, have endorsed Gingrich. The pastor anticipated that almost all of his congregants, about 110 total, also ended up backing Gingrich. “We had no problem moving over to the candidate that had the practical chance of winning,” he remarks.
In general, the attitude toward Gingrich’s personal baggage seemed to be resigned sadness — and a willingness to look past it. “If David from the Bible was running today, we’d have a murderer and an adulterer, but he turned out to be a great leader. I don’t agree with it,” says Greenville resident Dan Thompson of Gingrich’s past actions, “but I’m willing to forgive it.”
The enthusiasm for Gingrich is real. He regularly drew large, excited crowds in the last few days before the election. He drew people fired up at the prospect of voting and of changing the nation’s trajectory. People who see him as electable. Mike Murphree, chair of the Charleston Tea Party, referenced William F. Buckley’s axiom about supporting the most electable conservative when explaining his decision to vote for Gingrich: “I want a conservative, but I want a conservative who can win,” he said.
And, in an especially anti-Washington cycle, Gingrich strikes voters as someone who could change the status quo.
“The Republican establishment’s against him, which I think is a good thing,” says Bud Branyon, an accountant from Honeapath, S.C. “The Republican establishment in Washington are no different than the Democrats. They want big spending. They want big government.”
“And if they’re against Newt,” he adds, “he must have something going for him.”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.