The postgame punditry out of South Carolina was that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich defeated former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney handily because voters were looking for the most conservative candidate. But that’s only part of the story.
The bigger problem for Romney is authenticity. Despite his inconsistent conservatism, South Carolina voters didn’t dislike Romney and many thought he was conservative enough for their tastes. Even the most hardened anti-Romney Republican voters and activists I spoke with said they would work their tails off to support Romney if he is nominated. Polls showed they were inclined to support him over Gingrich as recently as several days before the Saturday primary. And on paper, Gingrich’s conservative sins—from criticizing House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to advising Freddie Mac to taping an ad with then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.,—are as well-known as Romney’s vulnerabilities and just as damaging.
But Republican voters in South Carolina—and, I imagine across the country—are hungry for a candidate who can articulate a proudly conservative message and make an effective case against Barack Obama. Gingrich improvised a different stump speech at nearly every campaign stop—you never knew what to expect. Like a professor, he didn’t dumb down his stump speech to the same several, stale talking points. Many voters who attended as undecideds frequently came away impressed with Gingrich’s depth of knowledge. This goes against Presidential Campaigning 101, but it worked for Gingrich.
Gingrich may not be like Paul Ryan or Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels in style, but he is in substance. In Aiken, his wonky presentation about health care reform nearly put Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s son Griffin, in attendance, to sleep. But it wowed the audience, who came away thinking Gingrich sounded presidential, reform-oriented, and authentic.
In his victory speech, Gingrich talked about left-wing rabble-rouser Saul Alinsky, who may not be a household name but is a buzzword with politically-attuned conservative activists. He took aim at the media for not scrutinizing Obama’s record closely enough—an argument that South Carolina Republicans frequently made. They want someone who will give Obama’s record the same scrutiny that the media has shown in diving into Gingrich’s past marriages and Romney’s tax returns. (Interestingly, this is an argument Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton, no hard-right conservative, made in his Sunday column, suggesting the view is not just limited to the fever swamps of the right.)
By contrast, Romney’s events were all the same, down to the candidate’s oh-so-sincere “Thanks, you guys!” introduction at every stop. He continued to annotate “America, the Beautiful” to demonstrate his patriotic feelings. In his South Carolina concession speech, Romney spoke vaguely about the merits of free-market capitalism.
That’s message discipline, one that strategists crave. Romney’s career as a business consultant, no doubt, makes him very comfortable with this style of campaigning too. But as conservative columnist Mark Steyn wrote Monday in National Review: “The finely calibrated inoffensiveness is kind of offensive.”
Romney advisers who are cautiously optimistic that their candidate’s organizational strengths will overwhelm Gingrich in Florida should think again. On paper, Florida plays to Romney’s strengths—it’s a big media-market state where grassroots campaigning takes a backseat to television advertising.
But Gingrich plays better on television, at least when he’s on his game. South Carolina voters weren’t always looking for the most conservative candidate, but an electable one, too. The biggest surprise from Saturday night wasn’t that Gingrich won, it was that Romney underperformed badly in the business-friendly conservative precincts around Charleston, Columbia, and even in fast-growing pockets of Greenville, which is as much at the center of the New South as the buckle of the Bible Belt.
A demographic analysis of election returns from Patchwork Nation shows that Gingrich performed nearly as well with the business-friendly voters as with evangelicals. In the counties listed as “boom towns” and “monied suburbs” which make up Romney’s demographic base, Gingrich carried them with 38 percent of the vote. That’s not much lower than Gingrich’s 41 percent in evangelical epicenters.
These managerial types are conservative, but also very receptive to Romney’s free-market message. Romney lost much of their support in the campaign’s final days, not winning a single congressional district in the state. Romney’s campaign was predicting a solid floor of about 33 percent in the days before the primary; he won just 27.8 percent of the vote.
Make no mistake; this is a warning sign for Romney in Florida and beyond. Romney’s advisers tried to downplay the scope of the South Carolina loss by noting how evangelical and conservative the electorate was there. The problem is, Romney also underperformed against Gingrich in the managerial-friendly turf that’s supposed to be his stronghold.
The smart money is on Gingrich imploding again, under the weight of Romney’s multimillion-dollar advertising blitz in Florida that raises all his past baggage. But to win, Romney can’t just rely on pulverizing Gingrich. He will need to articulate a center-right vision for the country that goes beyond platitudes.
This article appears in the Jan. 25, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.