In covering primary and caucus votes I’ve held to two principles: 1) polls, especially in early contests, are meaningless until just before the actual vote, and 2) each vote has the potential to change the dynamic of the nomination battle making polls of subsequent events open to considerable change. These principles were clear when John Kerry and Barack Obama used come from behind victories in Iowa in 2004 and 2008 to defeat the previous front runners for the Democratic nominations. This year, South Carolina has the potential to derail the campaign of Mitt Romney.
The script was supposed to read that South Carolina would be Romney’s third consecutive win, making his nomination inevitable. While Romney very well can still go on to win, this script is now in doubt. Newt Gingrich has overtaken Romney in late polls, while Santorum has been given the win in Iowa. A loss tonight would make Romney one out of three.
Romney has taken some serious hits, including questions about his years at Bain Capital, his admission that he only pays 15 percent in income taxes, his money in the Cayman Islands, and his poor response to questions about releasing his income tax returns. Added to clear demonstrations that Romney has no convictions or ideas as to how to govern, even if he still should win the nomination it is questionable whether he can compete in a general election campaign. Exit polls from South Carolina are showing that voters are looking for the candidate with the best shot at beating Barack Obama, but the old conventional wisdom that this is Romney might no longer hold. At this point Newt Gingrich, with all his faults, very well might be the Republican’s most competitive candidate in a general election campaign–which should be very scary for anyone crazy enough to want to see a Republican in the White House.
I wonder how much more momentum Santorum might have received if he had been declared the winner at the time of the actual vote. His initial placement in second place, along with the endorsement from portions of the religious right, appear to be insufficient to make him the major non-Romney candidate in South Carolina. The main difference is probably that Gingrich, from neighboring Georgia, is better able to play into the fears and prejudices of southern Republican voters. It is doubtful the revelations of his infidelity and request for an open marriage would hurt him at all. The morality of the religious right is in no way related to the morality of decent, honorable people who reject their archaic world view. Many in the religious right hold a strange world view where the paternalistic display of power by Newt over his previous wives would be seen as favorable, and Gingrich’s attack on the press for discussing this would be an even bigger plus. Rights of women and the concept of a free press are two ideas which are foreign to them.
The campaign also got down to the final four this week, first helping Romney and then non-Romney. There is a tremendous benefit to being declared first even before the GOP race allows winner take all votes in April. While Jon Huntsman never caught on, it became possible that his votes could make a difference in allowing Romney to hold on to first place in what was then a five way race. Rick Perry’s endorsement of Newt Gingrich helps balance that vote. The question in upcoming states will be whether Gingrich and Santorum divide the conservative vote, while Ron Paul, who has zero chance of actually winning, siphons off enough additional votes to allow Romney to come in first.
Should Romney have a strong showing today he will become very difficult to beat. However, should Gingrich win then the polls showing Romney with leads in Florida and other states might no longer have any meaning. A win for Gingrich in South Carolina would give an entirely new narrative in the Florida race. Romney’s national lead has fallen to ten points in the latest Gallup tracking poll. That poll was a five day rolling average taken between January 15 and 19. Romney’s position at the end of that period could even be worse., after leading by twenty-three points at the start of the week. Romney could fall even further if he loses in South Carolina, possibly leading to a loss in Florida, or at very least keeping the race going into more states.