How Newt Gingrich won South Carolina

Newt Gingrich said that if Mitt Romney had won South Carolina, Romney would be the nominee. But even when he was trailing by double digits in South Carolina, Gingrich steadfastly said that he thought he could win the nation’s “first-in-the-South” primary.

On Saturday, Gingrich won South Carolina with 40 percent of the vote to Romney’s 28. In addition, he won every Congressional district to get all of South Carolina’s 25 delegates (11 delegates are awarded for winning the statewide vote and 2 delegates are awarded for each of the seven Congressional districts that are won).

Here are five reasons why Gingrich won South Carolina.

1. Debates

According to exit polling, 64 percent of South Carolinians said debates were an important factor in their decision, and 53 percent said they decided in the last few days. Without a question, Gingrich’s two debate performances swung most of the undecided voters to his side. Last weekend, Gingrich was trailing Romney by more than ten percentage points, according to a RealClearPolitics average. On Tuesday, after the FOX News/Wall Street Journal debate in which he challenged questioner Juan Williams, who implied that Gingrich’s statements that Gingrich would run on “paychecks” as opposed to “food stamps,” were insensitive and had racial undertones. Gingrich defiantly said it was an inclusive message and defended the value of industriousness and said he would fight so that all working Americans could one day own the business where they work. He received a thunderous standing ovation, the first of this cycle, and began convincing South Carolinians that he could attack the mainstream media and President Barack Obama with ferocity while embracing conservative values and also being inclusive.

On Thursday, before ABC News aired an interview with his second wife, Marianne, which turned out to have no revelatory details, CNN’s moderator, John King, began the debate by asking Gingrich about ABC’s interview. Gingrich defiantly scolded King and the elite media for leading the debate with that question, and his gamble paid off when Marianne Gingrich did not say anything new that night.

2. Todd and Sarah Palin

Last week, Todd Palin called Gingrich to endorse him. On Wednesday, Palin said that if she were a South Carolinian, she would vote for Gingrich to keep the primary process going. The Palin South Carolina endorsements did two things. First, it gave Gingrich conservative credibility in a state in which Palin’s endorsement two years earlier had helped to elect South Carolina’s current Governor, Nikki Haley, and its most popular freshman Representative, Tim Scott. Second, it consolidated many voters who may have voted for Santorum to consolidate around Gingrich. Palin’s South Carolina endorsement also may have given Gingrich the air cover he needed among women voters who may not have been comfortable with him. Exit polls indicated Gingrich won married women and tied with Romney among single women. Gingrich, given his personal baggage, could have done a lot worse.

3. Rick Perry dropping out

When Perry dropped out and endorsed Gingrich, it allowed Gingrich to consolidate and solidify the conservative side of the bracket even more.

4. Nothing revelatory in Marianne Gingrich’s ABC interview

Gingrich’s vulnerability was among women voters, especially in the conservative Upstate cities of Greenville and Sparanburg. The hubbub surrounding the Marianne Gingrich interview led CNN’s John King to ask the question that allowed Gingrich to use the CNN moderator as a foil. Further, when the interview revealed nothing new, it ended up not hurting Gingrich in the short term and actually may have helped him. Gingrich wound up winning women voters in addition to evangelical voters. Among women voters, Gingrich beat Romney, 36 percent to 30 percent. Among married women, Gingrich beat Romney, 39 percent to 29 percent.

5. Distaste for Romney and establishment moderates

Socially and fiscally, South Carolina has always been extremely conservative. According to exit polls, 70 percent described themselves as conservative and 60 percent described themselves as evangelical. But rhetoric and the fierceness with which a candidate opposes Democrats and especially, in this election cycle, President Obama, factor in how a candidate is viewed.

Romney does not have trust among conservatives, and it is fitting — and fairly predictable — that in the first conservative primary (Iowa has a caucus and New Hampshire’s voters are traditionally moderate), Romney would have trouble.

And he did.

Gingrich consistently and successfully tagged Romney as a “Massachusetts moderate.”

Romney was trounced. Among voters who described themselves “very conservative,” Gingrich won 45 percent of the vote.