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Three Takeaways From South Carolina

Three Takeaways From South Carolina

By Sean Trende - January 22, 2012


Given the rather decisive nature of the South Carolina Republican primary -- Newt Gingrich won by about 12 points -- we can be rather brief with the takeaways here.

1) There is no good news buried in here for Mitt Romney. None. As of this writing, Mitt Romney is leading in three counties in South Carolina: Charleston, Beaufort (Hilton Head) and Richland (Columbia). He lost fast-growing, coastal Horry County, home of Myrtle Beach, by 15 points. He lost Greenville and Spartanburg, in the upcountry, by similar margins. He lost Edgefield County by 40 points.

Romney likely lost all seven congressional districts, meaning that Gingrich probably swept the state’s delegates, and now leads in the overall count.

According to the exit polls, Romney lost among every major category of voter. The demographic groups he managed to win include those with postgraduate degrees (18 percent of the electorate), people earning $200,000 or more (5 percent), moderates (23 percent), non-evangelicals (35 percent), and pro-choicers (34 percent). None of the leads over Gingrich in these groups were particularly large.

2) This is worse than George W. Bush’s loss to John McCain in New Hampshire. John McCain caught Bush off-guard in 2000, but Bush was given an opportunity to regroup. He hadn’t fired any major shots at McCain at that point, and was able to bury McCain beneath a torrent of attacks in South Carolina.

Romney has already been put on notice that Gingrich is a threat, and has already launched his assaults on him once. What does Romney have left? I assume that there are still bombs left to drop on the former speaker, and that the pre-Christmas attacks in Iowa were only a preview. But let’s also note that, two days before the primary, Gingrich’s ex-wife accused him of seeking an open marriage. We have to at least consider the possibility that voters may have already priced in Newt’s baggage, and just decided that they don’t care. If that’s the case, then Romney’s problems go even deeper than I suspect.

3) Analysts are kidding themselves if they say Romney is the inevitable nominee. 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. 

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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