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Who He Convinced
Gingrich’s debate performances were particularly effective in convincing conservatives, evangelicals, and undecided voters; perhaps he changed a bloc of voters' minds right before the election.
Voters Right Before The Election
Exit polls found that about half of primary voters made up their minds just a few days prior to the election. These voters could have been undecided up until a few days before the election, or have changed their minds from a Romney or Santorum vote to a Gingrich vote. Regardless, of the 55 percent who decided a few days before the election, Gingrich convinced 44 percent of them to vote for him, while Romney took only 22 percent. In contrast, Romney carried voters who made up their minds before December.
The various campaigns' get-out-the-vote efforts, including door knocking, phone calls, email, campaign advertising on TV and radio, signage, and town hall events, surely mattered. However, it’s hard to imagine that Gingrich, the candidate who failed to ensure his campaign organization got him on each state's ballot, somehow executed one of the most well-run ground games in South Carolina, pulling up 10 points from behind to win the election in just a few days. If it wasn't purely get-out-the-vote efforts, or a recently revealed Romney scandal, this suggests that Gingrich’s debate performances were the key to convincing voters.
Gingrich persuaded conservative evangelical South Carolina voters to cast their ballots for him—but not by fooling them into thinking he is the paragon of righteousness; his focus was on electability. Gingrich understands the cultural values they most care about, and expressed those values effectively and articulately. In turn, this showed them that he could effectively debate Barack Obama, helping to prove to them that not only may Gingrich understand their values better than Romney, he may be just as electable, if not more so.
The CNN South Carolina exit polls reveal that of the 65 percent who say they are evangelical Christians, Gingrich won 44 percent to Romney’s 22 percent. Likewise, among the 60 percent who say a candidate’s religious beliefs matter, 46 percent went to Gingrich and 20 percent to Romney.
Interestingly however, despite the high number of evangelical voters, only 18 percent report that a candidate having a strong moral character is the most important candidate quality. If it had mattered more, Newt may not have fared as well, since only a triumphant 6 percent of these voters cast ballots for Gingrich. This also points to the perception of electability playing a significant role in the South Carolina primary.
Everybody But the Moderates
Gingrich did more than just convince evangelicals; he captured pluralities across nearly all groups besides moderates, non-evangelicals, and voters under 30 (who went for Ron Paul). Gingrich won the deficit hawks and those caring most about jobs; he convinced those who approve of Gov. Nikki Haley and those who don’t; he won over both men and women; and won all four South Carolina regions (Piedmont, Midlands, PeeDee Region, and Low country). He won over nearly every educational and income group except post-graduates and those making over $200,000 a year (they went for Romney). He won over conservatives, Republicans, and Independents (which is surprising because Paul usually wins among Independents).
In sum, voters have been waiting for a candidate they like better than Mitt Romney to become more electable than Mitt Romney. At the South Carolina debate, Newt Gingrich spoke the conservative language in such a way that he could believably compete with President Obama in a national debate. This may have been enough to push blocs of voters to the Gingrich camp in less than a week. Rather than voters becoming upset with Romney or the other candidates, Gingrich’s debate performances demonstrated to them he is electable, providing them adequate justification to finally put their support behind him.
Source: CNN Exit Polls, South Carolina
Emily Ekins is the director of polling for Reason Foundation where she leads the Reason-Rupe public opinion research project, launched in 2011. Follow her on Twitter @emilyekins.