Republican presidential candidate and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich waves to the crowd after speaking during a†South Carolina Republican presidential primary night rally, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2012, in Columbia, S.C. Callista Gingrich looks on at right.
Since it was first held 32 years ago, the South Carolina Republican primary has been won by the party’s most electable candidate, the one backed by the Republican establishment and invariably the winner of the nomination.
On Saturday, the state veered in an extreme direction, and the outcome spoke poorly for a party that allowed itself to be manipulated by the lowest form of campaigning.
Newt Gingrich won the primary by a decisive margin of 12.5 percentage points, and there is no mystery about how he did it.
Two-thirds of voters interviewed in exit polls said they made their decision on the basis of the two South Carolina debates, where Gingrich exploited racial resentment and hatred of the news media to connect with furious voters.
He was helped by Mitt Romney’s halting answers about his tax returns and his finances, and by Rick Santorum’s tepid campaign, in which he compared himself to warm porridge.
But Gingrich won this largely on his own. He had a much better sense of the raw, destructive anger at President Obama swirling around a highly conservative and combative state, and he reflected it back to voters everywhere he went.
South Carolina has moved sharply rightward since Obama arrived on the national scene. In 2000, 24 percent of state voters said they were “very conservative,” but that number jumped to 34 percent in 2008.
Now it is up to 37 percent, according to exit polls. Two-thirds of Saturday’s voters said they supported the Tea Party.
Romney’s foam-rubber ideology was not built for an electorate this rigid. It was Gingrich who pulled the race into the gutter, where he found considerable support.
He repeatedly called Obama “the greatest food-stamp president in American history,” and lectured a black questioner at last week’s debate about the amount of federal handouts to blacks, suggesting their work ethic was questionable.
On Thursday, in the derisive tones of a radio talk-show host, he said Obama’s cabinet looked like Mickey Mouse and Goofy.
At that night’s debate, he lashed into the moderator for asking a perfectly reasonable question about his ex-wife’s allegation that he wanted an open marriage, saying it was typical of an “elite media” that was trying to protect the president by attacking Republicans.
That was just what South Carolina voters wanted to hear, the signal that he would not only challenge Obama but work to bloody him, to destroy his dignity.
As one voter told a reporter, “I think we’ve reached a point where we need someone who’s mean.”
They got that candidate on Saturday. Gingrich shocked Romney by making an issue of the jobs he destroyed in his leveraged-buyout firm, and he is clearly prepared to take negative campaigning against Obama to a new low.
In his victory speech, he even descended into Rick Perry territory by accusing the “elite media” of anti-religion bias.
Is that really what Republicans across the country want from their nominee, or is South Carolina, with its history of acute racial tension and contrarianism, simply sending a singular, extreme message?