Newt Gingrich surged to win South Carolina (44 of its 46 counties) and closed Mitt Romney’s 23 percentage point lead in the polls because of several solid debate performances where Gingrich convinced undecided voters, some Romney and Rick Santorum supporters, and evangelical Christians that he would be a formidable opponent to President Barack Obama.
The GOP nomination process has been volatile, with candidate after candidate ephemerally rising and then soon after declining (Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Gingrich, Santorum, Gingrich again). Most conclude this is the result of party members’ dissatisfaction with party front-runner Mitt Romney. Voters whimsically grasp hold of new potential challengers hoping to find an acceptable alternative to Romney only to find that the candidates are not electable. (See Gallup’s Positive Intensity Scores here).
During the January 16 and 19 South Carolina debates, Gingrich masterfully navigated the moderators’ questions to convince voters that he is electable. He made conservatism look effective—look obvious. GOP voters would probably eagerly await a debate showdown between Obama and Gingrich just to watch two master orators compete. Gingrich's debate performances may have in fact convinced wary Romney supporters that another candidate, one who better grasps their values, could beat Obama. This may have been what voters were waiting for; they finally had sufficient justification to give Gingrich their support.
Despite Gingrich's many political weaknesses, debating is not one of them: He’s sharp, shrewd, and snarky. For instance, surprising many, Gingrich managed to push himself up onto the moral high-ground amidst allegations that he asked his ex-wife for an open marriage. When CNN GOP debate moderator John King asked Gingrich for his response, Newt lashed back:
I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office, and I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that … [this] is as close to despicable as anything I can image.
Gingrich again received a passionate standing ovation during Fox’s South Carolina GOP Debate, when Juan Williams asked if Gingrich was “seeking to belittle people” when he referred to President Obama as the food stamp president. Somehow Gingrich turned the question around so he could make a declaration of the American Dream:
I believe every American of every background has been endowed by their creator with the right to pursue happiness … I’m going to continue to find ways to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job, and learn someday to own the job.
Gingrich’s debate performances likely helped him, as the CNN South Carolina exit polls show that of the 65 percent of voters who report the debates were important to their vote, 50 percent voted for Gingrich and 23 percent voted for Romney.
According to the CNN South Carolina exit polls the most important candidate quality to voters was electability, and among these voters Gingrich won. Forty five percent of South Carolina primary voters said it was most important for the GOP nominee to be able to beat President Obama, compared to the 21 percent who said it was most important that the candidate have the right experience. Only 18 percent said it was most important for the candidate to have a strong moral character, and 14 percent wanted a true conservative. Among those who most valued candidate electability, a majority (51 percent) voted for Gingrich, compared to 37 percent who voted for Romney. In fact, Newt nearly captured a majority (49 percent) of voters who valued a candidate having the right experience as well.
Before South Carolina, Republicans perceived Romney as the most electable candidate, even though maybe not the most likable. This perception was backed up by fact, since most hypothetical match-ups have Romney either beating Obama or losing within the margin of error. In fact, Real Clear Politics found that in January, Romney would lose on average to Obama by 1.9 percentage points, but Gingrich would lose on average by 11 percentage points.
Without considering the effect of recent debate performances (primarily viewed by South Carolina voters) it’s hard to imagine how Gingrich came to be perceived as most electable.
Source: Real Clear Politics