ORANGEBURG, S.C. -- The result in Saturday’s critical South Carolina primary could turn on whether gender or class exerts a bigger influence on the outcome. The more class shapes the outcome, the better the odds for Newt Gingrich; for Mitt Romney, the same is true for gender.
Gender has not been a big factor in the Republican presidential race so far. But with all signs indicating that Gingrich has enjoyed a surge of support here after two strong debate performances this week, Romney advisers and independent analysts alike say the one factor most likely to save the former Massachusetts governor would be a tilt away from Gingrich among women, after the explosive allegations aired by his ex-wife Marianne in a television interview Thursday.
“It looked like men are splitting and then we’re doing extremely well with women,” said one top Romney aide. “We’ve got to drive women to the polls. We’ve just got to increase our numbers among women.”
Meanwhile, Gingrich’s best asset may be Romney’s relatively weaker performance in the state among non-college and middle-income Republicans, many of whom are also evangelical Christians. For these voters, the week’s intense focus on the tax rate Romney pays may reinforce existing doubts about his Mormon faith and commitment to conservative social causes.
“The tax issue, no question about it, it’s a working-class issue,” said the Romney adviser. “A lot of these people who are going to vote, they go to H&R Block to get their taxes done and they have no idea what tax rate they pay.”
Most of the final public surveys here, including the Clemson University Palmetto Poll released Friday, showed Gingrich holding a small lead. But pollsters caution those surveys probably don’t fully reflect any possible reaction to the interview with Gingrich’s ex-wife-an impact that most observers here believe could play out primarily among women voters.
Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two contests on the GOP calendar, produced virtually no gender gaps for any of the major contenders, according to the exit polls conducted in both states. In Iowa, Romney carried 23 percent of men and 25 percent of women; in New Hampshire he drew 39 percent of men and 40 percent of women. Gingrich ran two points better among men than women in Iowa and one percentage point better. Even with the unusually large samples of exit polls, that’s statistical noise.
The lack of a meaningful gender gap follows the pattern from previous GOP races. In the 2008 contest, Romney drew exactly the same 25 percent among men and women, according to a cumulative analysis of all the exit polls conducted by ABC News. John McCain, the eventual winner, also ran almost exactly equal among men and women. In both the 1996 and 2000 South Carolina primaries that effectively ended those contests, gender played essentially no role in the victories by Bob Dole and George W. Bush.
This time, though, some analysts believe gender could loom larger in the aftermath of ABC’s interview with Marianne Gingrich, the former speaker’s second wife. In the interview, she alleged that he asked her to accept an “open marriage” with the woman Gingrich eventually married as his third wife, Callista Bisek.
“I can’t imagine a Republican evangelical woman looking at that interview and not being disturbed,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who has worked extensively in South Carolina and is now unaligned in the race after initially supporting Jon Huntsman. “I would look like a hawk at the evangelical vote by gender Saturday night. There will be a yawning gender gap particularly among evangelicals, especially if Romney ends up eking this thing out.”
Gingrich forcefully denied the allegations from his ex-wife and sweepingly denounced the media in a bristling answer to the opening question from moderator John King at Thursday night’s CNN debate. That electrified the hall and ignited a standing ovation. But all the campaigns are watching to see whether the charges seed more doubts, particularly among South Carolina women, as that emotional moment fades.
“At the debate, he pulled a page out of Richard Nixon’s playbook by attacking the media,” the Romney adviser said Friday. “For last night’s audience, it was very effective; the question is what happens as it beats on today. Women are more likely to break on him than anything.”
In the Clemson University survey, conducted Wednesday and Thursday, Gingrich did run somewhat better with men than women and Romney the reverse, according to David Woodard, a political science professor and Republican consultant who supervised the poll.
The countervailing force in South Carolina’s final hours is the potential for further erosion for Romney among blue-collar and middle-income voters amid the sustained focus on whether he will release his tax returns, and his disclosure that the effective tax rate he pays is close to 15 percent.
These class dimensions have exerted greater effect than gender on the GOP’s first two contests. In Iowa, Romney ran five percentage points better among voters with a college education than those without; in New Hampshire, the difference was six percentage points. (That tracks Romney’s showing in 2008 when he also ran slightly better among voters with a college education than those without, according to the cumulative ABC analysis.)
Viewing the electorate by income shows an even wider gap. In Iowa, Romney ran twenty percentage points better among voters earning at least $100,000 annually than he did with those earning $50,000 or less; in New Hampshire he ran 14 percentage points better among the upper-income voters. In each state, Gingrich displayed virtually no difference in his support along educational or income lines; in Iowa he ran slightly better among the most affluent voters, in New Hampshire slightly worse, but in each case the differences were minimal.
Some South Carolina polls this week have shown a palpable class skew. In the Politico survey conducted by Republican pollster Ed Goeas, Romney held a double-digit advantage over Gingrich among South Carolina voters with at least a four-year degree, but Gingrich led among those with only some college or less than a high-school degree.
The same sort of contrast was evident among evangelical Christians. In that Politico survey, Romney ran fully 18 percentage points better (at 49 percent) among South Carolina votes who did not consider themselves evangelical Christians than those who did (only 31 percent). That parallels results in the first two states, as well as almost all national polls, in which Romney has consistently run better among more secular Republicans.
Gingrich, meanwhile, led Romney among evangelicals in the Politico survey, but only narrowly, with Romney finishing a solid second. That also tracks a consistent pattern through the early stages of the race: Romney has been consolidating the party’s center behind him more than anyone has consolidated the right against him. If Gingrich wins Saturday night, he almost certainly will need to coalesce evangelical voters -- and the overlapping circle of strong tea party supporters -- to a greater extent than any of the candidates did in Iowa.
The contrast in the two men's support was evident in the strong tilt toward Romney among the pin-striped crowd at the State Chamber of Commerce’s annual legislative meeting in Columbia this week -- and the big crowd that turned out Friday to greet Gingrich in this community of much more modest means. Those flocking to Gingrich here didn’t necessarily view Romney negatively; but they didn’t relate to him nearly as directly as the business executives in Columbia. And almost universally, they viewed Gingrich as more experienced and more in tune with their beliefs.
“I don’t think everyone is sold on Romney,” said Sherri Coates, a personable local realtor wearing a prominent cross. “He may be a little too moderate in his beliefs.”
James Guth, a long-time political scientist at Furman University in Greenville, says the focus on Romney’s wealth over the past few days-in an ordeal that one senior Romney aide has termed the campaign’s worst week-reinforces the doubts many of those votes hold about the former governor’s commitment to social issues.
“When I am out talking about the campaign to civic groups, you just have this enormous range of entrepreneurs, small business, independent business folks who are naturally inclined toward being in his camp,” Guth said. “They like what he says about regulation, and the stifling effect of tax rates and things like that, but yet it’s not quite as easy to identify when you start hearing about his wealth and the level of his income taxes, and you have some of that offshore in tax havens.”
For those voters, Guth continued, this week’s focus on Romney’s personal finances produces “kind of a reinforcing effect-those are also the people who may have some concern about his position on the social issues and whether he believes his newfound conservatism. Those are the folks who are the core of the average southern Baptist church in most of the upstate and the other parts of the state. When you start adding up these liabilities it is a problem.”
Whether that’s enough of a problem to outweigh Gingrich’s potential difficulties with women voters may determine whether South Carolina today effectively ends the GOP race -- or sends it on to Florida spinning in a new direction.