Politics & Policy

What the Sunshine State Will Illuminate

A look back at what we learned from South Carolina, and what we can look for in Florida.

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:

LOOKING BACK

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.”

A great many Republicans believe that the media is their real foe, or at least that the media is primarily responsible for Obama’s victory in 2008. But voters outside the Republican base may be much, much less concerned with the issue of media bias, and it’s doubtful that the low-information independent and swing voters who tend to decide elections share that fury.

Three: The continuing irrelevance of Iowa. In the Hawkeye State, Rick Santorum pulled off the most unlikely of upsets, presented a feel-good underdog story in the first major contest of the 2012 cycle, and . . . he saw a relatively small impact on his numbers in New Hampshire. (They were raised from about 3 percent to 9 percent). Perhaps that can be explained historically: Iowa and New Hampshire rarely agree, and Granite State Republicans are usually extremely reluctant to confirm Iowa’s choice. But in South Carolina, Santorum jumped from 3 percent to 20 percent . . .  and then slid down to around 12 percent in the final polls, finishing with an acceptable — but uninspiring — 17 percent on Saturday night.

Santorum seems to be repeating the experience of Mike Huckabee, who also couldn’t translate an Iowa win into many significant victories in the subsequent states. This cycle has given critics of Iowa’s prominence a great deal of ammunition, but even if the state’s turnout had been higher and the count had been clear and no ballots had been lost, a definite pattern would remain: The rest of the country just isn’t all that enamored with the candidates Iowa likes best. Perhaps the state’s love of retail politicking and lavish personal attention from candidates is to blame, since candidates obviously can’t duplicate their 99-county tours in subsequent states.

Four: Ron Paul’s Achilles’ heel is not his foreign-policy views, it is closed primaries. Ron Paul’s support among veterans in South Carolina, according to exit polls, was 12 percent. His support overall: 13 percent.

That said, Ron Paul won 21.4 percent of the vote in the open caucus and 22.9 percent in the open primary, and then tumbled to just 13 percent in South Carolina’s closed primary. Open presidential primaries remain in Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Hawaii, Indiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Other states are considered “semi-closed” or permit voters to change their party affiliation on Election Day.

Ron Paul is going to end the 2012 Republican presidential primary with a big pile of delegates. He came in second in ten states last cycle and third in 17 others. (Delegate-allocation rules for each state can be found here.)

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.

LOOKING AHEAD

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.

Two: Running for president in Florida is on an entirely different scale than the preceding states. South Carolina represents the end of the primary season’s period of retail politicking. Last cycle, roughly 800,000 people voted in the GOP contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina; and then 1.9 million voted in the Republican primary in Florida. Already this year, the number of absentee ballots mailed in (185,000) exceeds the total number of votes in this year’s Iowa caucus (122,000). Moreover, Florida has 4 million registered Republicans.

“We’re incredibly diverse, the fourth most populous state in the country, and you have to run a real broad-based popular campaign — organization, grassroots, media, TV, phones, the works,” Cannon says. “We’re an extraordinarily diverse state, economically, demographically and geographically. You’ll see everything in Florida, from debates about controlling federal spending to Social Security to national defense — we have a large number of military bases — to strong views on immigration. We are a great composite of every major issue that will confront the nominee in a national campaign.”

Three: Expect attention to return to the economy, particularly the housing market. While South Carolina had high unemployment rates, Florida Republicans are likely to be even more focused on jobs and the economy, particularly the troubles in the housing market, the high rate of foreclosures, and the overall difficulty Americans have in buying and selling homes.

As Bloomberg reported, “Florida’s economic health has declined by 12.4 percent since the first quarter of 2009, when Obama was inaugurated, according to the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States. The state’s home prices have declined 22.5 percent in the period.” Mind you, by 2008, the housing bubble had already burst.

Four: Expect Newt Gingrich to be aiming squarely at retirees. Newt Gingrich’s best age demographic in Iowa: those 65 and older (17 percent, second only to Romney).

Newt Gingrich’s best age demographic in New Hampshire: those 65 and older (14 percent, third behind Romney and Huntsman).

Newt Gingrich’s best age demographic in South Carolina: those 65 and older (47 percent, winning by a wide margin).

In 2008, one third of Florida’s Republican primary electorate was age 65 or older. Romney lost that demographic; he garnered 31 percent of the vote, compared with 41 percent for John McCain.

Five: Primary Day is really Primary Week. As mentioned above, early and absentee voting has been swift. Perhaps 10 percent of all of the Florida primary’s ballots were filled out before the South Carolina results.

Early voting began on Saturday, which means that at least one day’s worth of early votes were cast before news of Gingrich’s big win arrived last night. With early voting continuing through Saturday, the impact of late-breaking arguments, debate performances, television commercials, charges, gaffes, and other events lessens slightly with each passing day. Thus, if Romney and Gingrich intend to go on the attack, there is no point in delaying: The pool of persuadable GOP-primary voters will shrink slightly each day. Expect fireworks at Monday’s debate on NBC. On Thursday, CNN hosts another, which may be the last shot for whoever is in second place in this week’s polls to close the gap.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.

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