Well, this changes things, doesn’t it? Over the long term, it may not change things that much. But for now, Newt Gingrich’s smashing victory over Mitt Romney in South Carolina alters the game dramatically. If you want to remember one key thing from tonight, remember this fact: According to the exit polls, Gingrich trounced Romney among voters when they were asked who can best take on and beat Barack Obama. On that question, 48 percent of voters chose Gingrich, and 39 percent Romney. That crushes Romney’s chief rationale to dust. The schedule and map still favor him, but he is in some serious trouble right now.
Gingrich’s win spread across many categories. He won conservatives. He won independents. He won late deciders. He won voters who live on $30,000, and he won people living on $200,000. He won men—and, contrary to some expectations, he evidently won women, by 6 percent. He rolled, every way you want to count it.
How and why? Simply, the debates. Even more simply, the two Moments in the debates: the smackdown of Juan Williams, and the smackdown of John King for starting the second debate by asking about his ex-wife’s allegations. There is no question that Gingrich rode those two moments to victory.
In other words: He won by hatin’ on the black guy and the liberal media. He hated on them expertly. He fired synapses in conservatives’ brains that they barely knew were there. You knew, anyone knew, watching those two moments, that they were absolutely pivotal. It wasn’t Newt’s ideas. Raise your hand if you think his plan to create local citizens’ boards to confer citizenship designations on undocumented immigrants made Tea Partiers across the state sit down over dinner and say, “You know, darlin’, I’m really impressed with Newt’s civic-minded immigration ideas.” Hands? Thought so.
If anything, his ideas—which is to say, his actual qualifications for the office of the presidency—were probably a minor net minus. Or at best a wash. He won because he expressed and embodied conservative rage better than the others.
Several questions going forward. First, how does Gingrich sustain this? He still needs money. It may start pouring in now. I guarantee you, the poll number his fund-raisers will cite to money people is the one I highlighted, about him being supposedly the more electable of the two. The Florida polls will tighten. The Florida Republican electorate isn’t quite as conservative as South Carolina’s—but remember, the state did elect Rick Scott as governor. So Gingrich can succeed there, but he will need money. It’s a 10-day sprint through a huge state with some pretty expensive media markets. I know of at least one debate, set for Monday. Blacks, liberal media…aren’t many rich targets left!
Second, what does Romney do now? If he ends up losing Florida, is he cooked? Gingrich tweeted around 7:30 Saturday that Florida would be the “knockout blow.” That’s probably overstated. After Florida comes Nevada, then Maine, and then (on Feb. 7) Minnesota, Colorado, and Missouri. At least some of those would seem to be Romney states. But he has to raise his game in a big way.
He has it in him. Think back: In the early debates, last fall, the conventional wisdom was usually that Romney won them. He’s good at it. But he hasn’t been lately. He has to find an answer on the tax return question, but he has to do something bigger than that. He has to find a way to turn around the conversation about his wealth and his inability to connect to regular people and make it a plus, go on the offensive. Republicans are supposed to like rich people, so this ought to be possible.
It will be interesting now to see how hard the Karl Rove/establishment wing pushes to try to rally around Romney. You’d think they have to. Senators and House members too. They do not want to seek election with Gingrich at the top of their ticket. At the same time, no one wants to back a losing horse. Romney needs to rally this cohort fast and hope it makes a difference.
Question three, and here’s the big one emerging from this contest: Exactly why is Gingrich suddenly more electable than Romney? Because, it is said, he has proven that he can debate Barack Obama. You hear conservatives talk, they’re just licking their chops over this. They may well nominate Gingrich not because they really want him to be the president of the United States, but because they want to see him debate Obama three times—or maybe even seven times at three hours each, which is what he’s been proposing for months, and which he reiterated in his victory speech Saturday night to loud applause. Those debates will practically be sacred events for conservatives.
This is what conservatives want. They want someone who can stand on a stage with Obama and say, “You are our nightmare. You are the destroyer. You are the un-American and the anti-Christ, and I smite you.” For conservatives, it’s personal with Obama. He blinds them with hatred.
So they don’t really want someone who can “beat” Barack Obama, which is the question the exit polls asked. They want someone who can humiliate him in prime-time television, put him in his place, expose him to the world such that all the deluded idiots in this country who still like Obama finally and blazingly acknowledge the truth that has so long been obvious to them. As Newt supporter Sam Pimm told me at the Gingrich victory event, “I would buy a ticket to see Gingrich debate Obama. Newt versus Obama is going to be something to see.”If winning stems from that, so much the better. Rank-and-file conservatives like Jim Dolbow believe it’s bound to. “He knows how to defeat liberals,” Dolbow said about Gingrich at the victory event. “He did it in 1994. He’s a liberal slayer.”
I think conservatives like Dolbow should be a careful about assuming that centrist Americans are as fixated on the Juan Williamses of America as they are. But for now, it’s working. Gingrich’s hold on GOP voters at the moment is talismanic. Like a spell. Or is it a curse? We all just might find out.