Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s strong 40-28 percent victory over former Gov. Mitt Romney in Saturday’s South Carolina primary means the Republican presidential nomination fight is far from being decided. The 40 percent total represented the largest winning percentage thus far in the campaign, topping Romney’s showing in the New Hampshire primary (39 percent).
Turnout was a record high for an individual party. The 2008 Democratic primary, featuring then-senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, topped 532,000 ballots cast. That year more than 443,000 also voted on the Republican side. On Saturday, GOP voter participation broke the 600,000 threshold.
The evening proved to be a disappointment for both former Sen. Rick Santorum and Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX-14). Both had hoped to do better. Santorum needed to at least finish a close third to realistically continue performing as a first tier candidate, but tallied only 17 percent of the South Carolina vote. Following Santorum was Rep. Paul with 13 percent. The congressman stated publicly he was hoping for a strong third place finish. Gingrich won 43 of the state’s 46 counties and Romney three, while both Santorum and Paul were shut-out.
Mr. Gingrich again rebounded from what appeared to be a relentless downward spiral based upon his Iowa and New Hampshire finishes. Every other candidate in this race, once they began to fall, never recovered. As we saw in South Carolina over the weekend, Gingrich has now bounced back twice, once from his staffing debacle at the start of his presidential campaign, and now, overcoming the negative ad barrage that damaged him in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Additionally, South Carolina may have given us the first practical test of the theory that a conservative who can isolate Romney in a two-way race beats him, irrespective of who may be that individual. Since the Palmetto State vote is the first instance where the campaign winnowed down into basically a two-candidate race, the theory, at least as exemplified during this past weekend, appears to have legs.
We also have the underpinnings of a nomination fight that could soldier on for a long while, or at least through the end of April when more than two-thirds of the delegates will be apportioned. With Gingrich’s victory in South Carolina, three candidates have now won nominating events: Santorum in the Iowa Caucuses Romney in the New Hampshire primary, and now the former Speaker during this past weekend.
Projecting forward from the progression of events just passed, let’s try to project what comes next in Florida on Jan. 31? As the party leaders had hoped for when they accepted reducing the size of their delegation by half for the right to vote before Super Tuesday (March 6), Florida could determine who wins the nomination. Not only will it be the first big state to host a nominating event, but a victory by either Romney or Gingrich could send the other two candidates, Paul and Santorum, out of the race. Santorum’s departure would have a greater effect because his constituency will almost assuredly go to Gingrich as their second choice.
The Florida vote will answer the following questions: Will Gingrich have generated enough momentum in South Carolina to win a big state primary? Will Romney’s superior financial resources and campaign management team return him to the winner’s circle in what could become the most important of states? Will Paul and Santorum drop out if they again finish poorly? Will an eventual two-way contest between Gingrich and Romney favor the former Speaker despite his carrying substantial personal and political baggage? The answers to these and many other race-defining queries will be uncovered to at least some degree when people from Pensacola to Key West cast their ballots in eight days. Stay tuned.