Just when it appeared the Republican presidential contest was beginning to normalize, the unexpected happened yet again. A series of six polls taken within a three-day period ending Wednesday shows former House Speaker Newt Gingrich gaining sustained electoral momentum, thus becoming positioned for a possible upset win tomorrow in South Carolina.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the leader of the race entering the Palmetto State primary, is clearly enduring his most difficult week of the campaign. Besieged with questions about his tax payments and off-shore corporate investment accounts uncovered in the Cayman Islands, discovering he actually placed second in the Iowa Caucuses to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum by 34 votes instead of claiming an eight-vote victory, seeing Texas Gov. Rick Perry drop out of the race and endorse Gingrich, and giving his worst debate performance of the cycle has apparently eroded Romney’s always tenuous lead in conservative South Carolina.
Four of the six polls now show Gingrich with the advantage in South Carolina, revealing margins from two to six points. American Research Group (Jan. 17-18; 600 likely South Carolina GOP primary voters), Insider Advantage (Jan. 18; 719 likely South Carolina GOP primary voters), Public Policy Polling (Jan. 18; 379 likely South Carolina GOP primary voters – the first night of a three-night track), and Rasmussen Reports (Jan. 18; 750 likely South Carolina GOP primary voters) post the former Speaker to leads over Mr. Romney of 33-32; 32-29; 34-28; and 33-31 percent, respectively.
Two other surveys, NBC/Marist (Jan. 16-17; 684 likely South Carolina GOP primary voters – a tally of 349 pre-debate and 335 post-debate), and Politico/Tarrance (Jan. 17-18; 600 likely South Carolina GOP primary voters) still show Mr. Romney ahead. He registers more substantial 34-24 and 37-30 percent leads over Mr. Gingrich, respectively.
All of the surveys feature substantial sampling universes except the Public Policy Polling effort (giving Gingrich his largest lead), but these numbers represent only the first day’s results from a three-day track. To fully comprehend the complete results of this particular poll, all of the cell group responses must be tabulated. If the PPP preliminary result is put on hold, then the remaining Gingrich-leading studies all fall within the same 1-3 point range.
The NBC/Marist poll, which surveyed some people before the mid-week debate and others after, concluded that the forum proved to be of major importance, is a potential outlier. First, its methodology is different from the others and second, their results (Romney +10) are inconsistent with the other professional pollsters who were in the field at the same time. The Politico/Tarrance data (Romney +7), is also curious, but it’s at least closer to the norm than the NBC/Marist study. The fact that two of the six surveys still show Romney leading the race, while four others reveal the opposite conclusion suggests that the contest is very tight. However, because Gingrich is now leading in more polls, it provides further clues that the momentum is on his side.
If Newt Gingrich manages to win the South Carolina primary tomorrow, one of two things will happen: first, if Romney rebounds with a Florida victory on Jan. 31, then the Gingrich win may prove to be just a bump on the former governor’s road to the nomination. Second, should the race continue to evolve into a two-way Romney-Gingrich race and the Florida result is close, we could be starting a whole new campaign phase; one that could lead to all 50 states having an important role in the delegate count.
Contrary to popular opinion expressed earlier in the week, it now appears that the Republican presidential nomination campaign is not over, and the former House Speaker has again successfully rebounded from oblivion. It is fair to suggest that even more surprises are headed our way.