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.