Mitt Romney: evitable?

After leading in polling in South Carolina for the last couple of weeks, Mitt Romney got badly beaten in the Palmetto State by Newt Gingrich yesterday, wh was fueled by two dynamic debate performances, especially with a big attack on the national media in the second.  The scope of the defeat — by 12-13 points — left Romney with no delegates from this primary [see update II], as Gingrich won every Congressional district in the state.  Sarah Palin called Newt Gingrich the new front-runner, and while that’s an understandable spot reaction, it’s a stretch at best.

Gingrich did a terrific job in South Carolina.  It’s worth noting that Romney won the same percentage of the vote (27%) that polls showed him having two weeks ago when he led 27/24 over Rick Santorum.  Gingrich won by firing up nearly everyone else and getting 40% of the vote in South Carolina.  That was an amazing accomplishment, all the more so because it mainly resulted from the two televised debates, and despite as well as because of the attack from Gingrich’s second former wife Marianne.

How did that happen?  Thanks to that confluence of events, personal performance, and a couple of stumbles by Romney in the debates, Gingrich tapped into the lingering dissatisfaction of conservatives with Romney, fear of losing any chance of stopping Romney, and anger against the national media.  This was an emotional sale, not primarily based on policy choices, which haven’t changed in months on either side.  His big win will spark hope that Romney can be beat in the primaries, and the scope of that win will impact the Florida race, certainly.

However, it’s probably not a gamechanger, at least not on its own.  Florida comes next, and it has a lot more delegates at stake.  It’s less conservative than South Carolina, and it’s a much bigger state geographically as well as in population.  Romney has a much stronger organization in Florida than Gingrich or anyone else; Ron Paul won’t even contest it, he announced last night.  At least 200,000 ballots have already been cast in Florida, which will give Romney a big boost.  Furthermore, the emotional peak in South Carolina that fueled Gingrich’s rise will dissipate quickly in Florida, unless another big controversy arises that gives Gingrich an opportunity to blast the media, and Romney belatedly moved to defuse the tax-return issue this morning.  At that point, voters in more moderate Florida will go back to looking at Gingrich’s record and his past, which is what killed his last boomlet in mid-December.

The schedule is another big problem for Gingrich.  First, as Gingrich even mentioned in his victory speech last night, his campaign coffers aren’t exactly overflowing at the moment, and the pace is about to change.  The week after Florida, five states have primaries or caucuses (two of which are non-binding), and the lack of resources will make it difficult for Gingrich to compete simultaneously.  Three weeks later, Arizona and Michigan hold their primaries on the same day, which means that Gingrich will probably only be able to energetically compete in one of those two states, and Michigan is already Romney country.  The very next week, ten states hold their contests, including Gingrich’s home state of Virginia, where Gingrich’s lack of organization resulted in failure to make the ballot.  Romney’s big advantage in organization hasn’t even begun to play out in this race, but it’s going to be huge in February and March.

That doesn’t mean Romney has it sewn up, either.  Instead of Florida being a coronation, it’s now a survival state for Romney.  Losing South Carolina will undermine confidence in Romney’s ability to close the deal, especially by getting beaten so badly by Gingrich, who was third in polling two weeks ago and finished fourth and fifth in Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively.  If Romney struggles in Florida, Gingrich might not need a lot of organization in the following couple of weeks to start winning races, no matter how many resources Romney throws at those states.  Adam Smith reminds us that Romney outspent and outorganized John McCain in 2008 in Florida and still lost the state after losing South Carolina, but Romney had also lost New Hampshire to McCain.

The biggest outcome from yesterday is that Mitt Romney looks surprisingly evitable, while Newt Gingrich looks surprisingly credible.  The odds are still stacked against a long-shot Gingrich, but he’s no longer a no-shot candidate.

Update: Sean Trende gives Romney a 35% chance of losing the nomination, and offers this warning to Romney:

Simply put, there are very few states where he can perform among the major demographic groups the way he performed in South Carolina and still expect to win. And remember, this is still in many ways the electorate that selected Christine O’Donnell, Carl Paladino and Linda McMahon as its standard-bearers — in very blue states with relatively moderate GOP electorates, no less.

This vote was an utter repudiation of Romney, and it absolutely will be repeated in state after state if something doesn’t change the basic dynamic of the race. It is true that Gingrich doesn’t have funds or organization, but he gets a ton of free media from the debates, and he has an electorate that simply wants someone other than Romney.

That’s not to say that Romney’s money and organization don’t give him advantages — they do. He remains the GOP front-runner, in my view, because it isn’t clear how well Gingrich can survive the long haul. But there’s a not-insubstantial chance, call it 35 percent, that Romney won’t be the nominee.

Poor organization can be fixed, although it’s still pretty unclear whether Gingrich himself can do that.  A poorly-performing candidate is tougher to fix, but also not impossible.

Update II: Actually, Romney ended up with two of the 25 delegates from South Carolina.

Update III: My description of Trende’s odds-making was inaccurate.  He didn’t say Gingrich had a 35% chance of winning the nomination, but that Romney had a 35% chance of losing it.   At the moment, that sounds like the same thing, but it’s not exactly what Sean said.  I’ve changed it above.