Explaining Newt’s Second Surge

Newt Gingrich surged to win South Carolina (44 of
its 46 counties) and closed Mitt Romney’s 23 percentage point lead
in the
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.

The Debater

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
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

Gingrich’s debate performances likely helped him, as the
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
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.


Real Clear Politics