Saturday was a stormy one in South Carolina: Gray, overcast, blustery crosscurrent winds – even potential tornado activity. There was also the weather for the “first in the South” GOP presidential primary. One could say that a tornado did sweep through the SC GOP primary Saturday, and his name was Newt.
Saturday’s presidential primary was really (to continue the weather metaphor) a perfect storm for Mitt Romney: An electorate that was highly conservative (68 percent identified themselves as somewhat conservative or very conservative in a CNN exit poll), overwhelmingly white (98 percent), had more voters who identified as “born again/evangelical” than four years ago, and 75 percent of voters were married.
While Mitt’s expectations were declining throughout the week prior, would anyone seriously have ventured a prediction that Newt would claim a 12-point victory over the presumptive front-runner and anointed one?
The GOP now has its anti-Mitt candidate.
This South Carolina GOP primary provided all the excitement and negativism that past primaries have been notorious for, except at a much higher level. Things seemed to change almost a week before the primary, when Romney lost his footing to a surging Newt. Then came two poor debate performances by Romney, mostly centered on taxes (or lack of public disclosure thereof), and the inevitable bulls-eye on front runners.
Finally, a triple- twister Thursday before the primary: Rick Perry dropped out and endorsed Newt, Newt’s second wife accused him of seeking an “open marriage,” and John King’s opening salvo at that night’s debate. Any other candidate would have felt like he was in a high-speed blender, but Newt was able to exploit it all and the surge turned into a tsunami. And Mitt got carried out by the rip current.
Newt definitely tapped into the anger that had been brewing since 2009, when Tea Party supporters organized and marched into the GOP. Saturday, nearly two-thirds of GOP primary voters said they supported the Tea Party. Those voters went for Newt over Mitt by 20 points. This is the reality for the GOP.
Later this week I’ll have another post that looks in-depth at the exit polls and what they told us. Suffice it to say, Mitt lost to Newt in every category save a few: Moderate & liberal voters and those who don’t identify as “born-again/evangelical” voters. But for Mitt Romney to become the Republican Party’s nominee — a party whose coalition is everything those voters aren’t — he has to regroup, rethink, and reformulate his campaign.
And what he needs to do is recognize where he is — in second place and the underdog – and only focus on Newt and the nomination.
President Obama can wait—but Mitt can’t take on the president if Newt is the nominee.