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
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.