Now that the dust is beginning to settle in South Carolina and the candidates – with their press pack trains in tow – have fled to Florida, we’ve reached a rather remarkable juncture in the battle of 2012. With that in mind, it’s worth taking a moment to see where we stand and what, if anything, we learned in the Palmetto State on Saturday night. Ed already weighed in with some of this thoughts, and supporters of various candidates have begun chiming in as well. From Erick Erickson to Doug Ross, everyone is trying to redefine the race for roughly the millionth time so far.
But what did the South Carolina primary really teach us? I think there’s a few important lessons which came clear after the polls closed. Here are a few.
1. Debates and earned media still matter – possibly more than ever
There has been a lot of carping about Super PACs and the overwhelming effect of “big money” in the campaign. (In fact, that’s what is generally blamed for Newt’s poor showing in Iowa.) Rasmussen this week said a majority want campaign finance laws dredged up yet again. This has been matched by the griping (including mine) over the large number of debates, with questions as to whether or not anyone was even paying attention to them anymore, aside from hard core political nerds and geeks. South Carolina should put that to rest.
In exit polls, 2/3 of primary voters said that not only did they watch the debates, but they affected their decision as to who they selected. This obviously benefited Newt Gingrich in the extreme with his strong performances. In contrast to that, Mitt’s Super PAC outspent Newt’s by a wide margin. Which had more impact? The returns speak for themselves. People are watching and judging for themselves, frequently shrugging off the negative ad blitzes.
2. The anti-establishment GOP meme is not just a meme
I’m reminded of a scene from the cult classic film, Princess Bride. “Inevitable. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Newt Gingrich may not be the Conservative Ideal for many in the base and his record (or “baggage” if you prefer) may give many pause in terms of the general election. But one thing he’s not is Mitt Romney. Another thing he’s not is the establishment candidate. South Carolina’s history in the modern era of politics should teach us that they are, if nothing else, a generally pragmatic group. If any early state was going to go with the candidate they were “told” was the inevitable winner, it would have been them. But let’s face it… Mitt got his backside handed to him in a fairly decisive fashion. This came in spite of endorsements from prominent “establishment” figures up and down the line, as well as those of ultraconservative, Tea Party favorites. It didn’t matter in the end. The running theme of primary voters being tired of being “told who to vote for” can no longer be taken as a Tea Party talking point, in my opinion. We now have solid voter data to back it up.
3. Mitt Romney is made of flesh and blood
Romney had a double digit lead in South Carolina as little as a fortnight before the voting began. Now that the janitors are mopping the blood up off the canvas, we should be reminded of that scene when Rocky opened up a cut on Ivan Drago’s head. You see? He’s not a machine, he’s a man!
Until now you could make excuses for Romney if you wished. Aside from the Super PAC blitz against Newt at the end, Mitt never really competed in Iowa at anywhere near the level the rest of the contenders did and he still managed what can only be called a tie. He blew the doors off in New Hampshire. And if he had strolled out of Florida with a 4-0 record, let’s face the facts… everyone but Ron Paul would have quit. But Mitt chose to actively campaign and spend big in South Carolina. He always tried to manage expectations downward, but it was obvious he thought he could continue to build momentum going into Florida. He failed. He’s been cut. He’s not a machine.
That’s not to say that Mitt is washed up. Not by a long shot. He’s still got a ton of money and a national campaign infrastructure built for a marathon, not a sprint. But he can only take so many of these losses before the money starts drying up.
4. Newt Gingrich far less unstable than nitroglycerin
The common theme among many – particularly Santorum supporters – is that all they really need to do is wait for a while and Newt will blow himself up and go away. I mean, he always does, right? Well, Newt’s combustible tendencies may be real, but they haven’t managed a feat of self-immolation yet. Every time he says or does something which veteran observers think will be a fatal shot to his own foot, he somehow manages to turn it into a positive and gets standing ovations from the base. (Quite frequently literal standing ovations.)
Is it just possible that what the “experts” think of as fatal errors sometimes turn out to be exactly what conservative voters have been waiting for? South Carolina would seem to add weight to that argument. This isn’t to say that Newt might not yet trip over his own tongue and fall flat, but it certainly hasn’t happened yet. And the upcoming audiences in Florida already seem to be taking approving notice.
5. Rick Santorum prefers turtle soup to rabbit Fricassee
Rick Santorum isn’t going anywhere. Despite a third place finish, he’s on his way to the Sunshine State. Newt is still speaking very kindly of Rick in public, knowing that he needs Santorum’s supporters if he does manage to turn it into a two person race with Romney, but he’s got to be annoyed.
For his part, Santorum is correct to note that he has now won exactly as many primary contests as Mitt and Newt. And as per number 4 above, he has no reason to leave. Newt may have all the momentum at the moment, but if he does trip and fall, number 2 above should tell us that there is an excellent chance that Newt’s backers will actually stampede to Rick, rather than “falling in line” behind Romney. If he can just put in another strong pair of performances at the Florida debates, he will remain well positioned to lurk in the background and wait for his opportunity.
6. Ron Paul’s car only travels in one gear
This isn’t something we really “learned” in South Carolina, since it’s not really a new story. But Ron Paul has the money, the time and the patience to hang in there until the convention. He openly stated after the polls closed that he is “hunting for delegates” and will focus on the caucus states. What he intends to do with those delegates is anybody’s guess, but you can be sure he will stick around until the bartender signals last call. Last night, Michael Steele said he thought that the Palmetto State results made it “a 50-50 chance that we’re heading for an open convention” this year. Is Ron Paul playing a bigger game than any of us suspect at this point?
7. The conventional wisdom is, yet again, neither
I have lost track of the number of times since last summer that one expert or another told me how “obvious” it was that things were going to be one way or another this election. And on the heels of every major development, the “obvious” outcome seems to change. Sure… it’s possible that it ends just like many of us thought in the fall. Mitt might still lock up Florida and go on to swamp everyone else with money, endorsements and ground game organization, sweeping to his inevitable nomination. In fact, I’d personally still put the odds in favor of that happening. But it won’t be quick, it won’t be clean, and it won’t be pretty. And it might not happen at all.
Goes to show what we know, eh?