As the Republican nomination’s field narrowed ahead of the South Carolina primary (no more Rick Perry; no more John Huntsman) we saw a four horse race for votes among the party’s three ideological camps. Mitt Romney is the businessman-turned-politician who supports free enterprise. Ron Paul the most anti-government. Rick Santorum the most pious.
Then there is Newt Gingrich, a Washington insider by all accounts who has never run a business and who profited handsomely from his time in Congress by becoming a successful lobbyist (he prefers ‘consultant’). His moral credentials, meanwhile, are called into question by three marriages and a well-known affair.
Who won South Carolina? Newt. And he did so convincingly, taking 40% of the vote compared with Romney’s 28%. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul were well behind with 17% and 13% respectively. Both, for now, vow to fight on.
Is it now a wide-open race? The Economist’s Jon Fasman is sceptical. He points out that in Florida, the next state to vote, Romney’s SuperPac, ‘Restore our Future’, has spent $7.8m in TV adverts compared to zero put up so far by ‘Winning our Future’, the pro-Gingrich Pac. The New York Times points to Kantar Media/CMAG data showing that Romney himself has spent $4m in TV airtime in Florida already whilst Gingrich just announced his first advert. And then there is Nevada, the next up, where 11% of the population is of Mormon faith, as is Romney.
Indeed, the next states will be tougher than South Carolina for Gingrich, where he spent much time courting Tea Party leaders. In Florida, Romney holds a 46.1 to 24.9-percentage advantage over Gingrich, where elections will be held on the 31st of January.
Money is not Romney’s only advantage, though. As Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, a research fellow at Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, argues in a recent Politics in Spires post, compared to Romney, Gingrich’s field organisation in Florida is scant (only recently opening a campaign office in Orlando) and non-existent in Nevada. Nielsen’s post is worth reading in its entirety; but I want to highlight his arguments about Mitt’s on-the-ground organisation (btw: Nielsen has written a new book on campaign ground wars).
A long multi-state primary is also complicated to coordinate and involves a lot of hard work on the ground. Romney has his organization, data infrastructure, web presence etc. in place nationally. He is very active in states like Florida, where his campaign has been working for months, both on the air and on the ground (Gingrich opened his office there January 13). Romney also already has an office in Nevada (caucuses February 4). It is not clear that the Gingrich campaign has any real presence there. In December, a local operative working with his campaign told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that there were no immediate plans to open an office in the state. (That is bound to change after his South Carolina win.)
Nielson is certainly right that Newt has a mountain to climb. Based on past elections, he should run out of steam given Romney’s fundraising power and ground troops.
But this election is not like past GOP primaries. As Nate Silver of the New York Times lays out, in previous years, even if a candidate had a blip in Iowa or New Hampshire, the majority quickly rallied around the clear favourite among the party elites – national and state politicians, Washington power brokers, media titans and major donors. Since 1984 the post New Hampshire national polling leader always ended up with the nomination, and it happened quite quickly. The Democrats have not always been so efficient, notably in the race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. But in the Democrats defence, in the years when a post NH upset did occur (three since 1984) the leader was only slightly ahead.
Heading into South Carolina the establishment candidate was clearly Mr Romney, who on average had a 19% lead in national polls and had the majority of the endorsements. New Hampshire also showed the power of Romney’s ground game; he trounced candidates who did well in Iowa but had little platform in the Granite state, admittedly a neighbour to Massachusetts, where he was governor. With 19-point lead, Romney should be out of sight.
But this didn’t happen, and I suggest it was for two reasons. First, the establishment connections Romney spent so long cultivating are causing problems in an anti-establishment primary. Fasman quotes Erick Erickson of Redstate, a conservative website, who wrote that the result was ‘about Republican grassroots giving the Washington Establishment the finger. The base is angry, and right now only Newt is left to fight for them’.
Second, like many of us, voters in South Carolina had trouble figuring out Mitt Romney, a man who has changed his stance on major issues. According to exit polls, over half of voters made up their mind at the last minute. This had little to do with organisation and advertising money and everything to do with the two debates where Newt shone and Mitt stumbled. As Silver notes, the first saw a double-digit swing in some polls – overnight. And in the following debate, Newt benefited from a question about his personal life that the audience found repugnant. Typical stuff from the ‘elite media’.
As the race turns to Florida, according to one national poll, Romney now only has a 3% lead (30% – 27%). On Radio 4’s The World this Weekend, the pollster Scott Rasmussen said that Gingrich’s momentum is carrying into the Sunshine state. Whether Newt can keep it up remains uncertain – but studying previous years may no longer tell us much.
A Blake Ewing is a DPhil student at Oxford.