South Carolina represents the heart of the conservative movement because its Republican voters are fierce fiscal and social conservatives, which means they fervently support the Tea Party and evangelicals. These voters are now popularly referred to as “Teavangelicals” and, predictably, dominated the Palmetto State’s primary.
According to exit polling from Saturday’s first-in-the-South primary, 64 percent of those who voted in the GOP primary in South Carolina supported the Tea Party and another 27 percent were neutral. Only 8 percent opposed.
In addition, 65 percent of primary voters were “Born-Again or Evangelical Christian.”
What happened in South Carolina is important for two reasons. First, the Republican party is becoming more like South Carolina than New Hampshire. Second, because of the lackluster field of Republican candidates, many on the right have tried to make up for the deficiencies of the candidates by lending them their name and support.
Nowhere was this more intense than in South Carolina. Trying to push establishment favorite Mitt Romney to a quick victory, figures the mainstream media have tagged as part of the next generation of national conservative leaders — such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell — went to South Carolina en masse to attempt to deliver a knockout blow.
But something funny happened on the way to Romney’s coronation: Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin stepped in and essentially said, “Not so fast, my friends.” And in doing so, Palin showed that she is the leader whose judgment Teavangelicals may trust the most.
Consider how Romney — and, by proxy, the establishment — got bloodied in South Carolina.
First, Palin said, contrary to what was being conventionally said at the time, that the mainstream media and President Barack Obama would want to face Romney in the general election.
When Rick Perry and Gingrich attacked, at times inarticulately, Romney’s record while at the head of Bain, Palin jumped in and cleaned it up. She said free enterprise and capitalism should be fiercely defended, but that if Romney’s basis for his candidacy is that he would be a job creator like the one he supposedly was while at Bain, that Romney should simply prove that Bain had indeed created the 100,000 jobs he said they did. And created them in the United States.
Then, further proving that she was not on the GOP establishment’s plantation, Palin also called on Romney to release his taxes. Soon after, even Romney’s supporters such as Christie followed suit.
By not falling in line with the GOP establishment, Palin guaranteed Romney’s Bain and tax issues were not put to rest. Romney’s bungling and unsteady responses to both issues left him vulnerable for Gingrich to have a chance at cutting into what many thought was Romney’s insurmountable 20+ point lead in South Carolina.
And Gingrich took full advantage of his opportunity when he came out swinging against questioner Juan Williams at the FOX News/Wall Street Journal debate last week, when he defiantly defended conservative principles by telling Williams that saying he wanted to be a pay check president instead of a “food stamp” president was not racist because he was being inclusive of all Americans. Gingrich received a thunderous standing ovation and conservative heavyweights such as Rush Limbaugh praised the former speaker on the airwaves. Two-thirds of those who voted in Saturday’s primary said the debates influenced their decision, and Gingrich’s standoff with Williams convinced many that Gingrich could fiercely articulate conservatism, combat the mainstream media and be inclusive.
At the very moment when Gingrich swung himself back into the game, Palin ensured Gingrich’s momentum would not wane by going on FOX News’ “Hannity” the day after the Fox News/Wall Street Journal debate and saying that, in order for the primary process to continue, and if she were a South Carolinian, she would vote for Gingrich
“There’s no question we saw it help us in fundraising,” Gingrich told Greta Van Susteren on FOX News’ “On The Record” last Thursday, two days after Palin’s comments. “We saw it help us in volunteers. We saw people, all of a sudden, on the phones. She has a significant following in the Republican Party.
“To have her say she’d vote for me in South Carolina… that was a big break and it really helped us a lot.”
In the same interview in which she said she would vote for Gingrich in South Carolina, Palin also said that, in order for the process to keep going, a conservative candidate — whether it be Rick Perry, Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich — would have to “take one for the team” and drop out sometime down the line.
After the conversation intensified about how conservative candidates should get out of the way to not siphon away votes from the anti-Romney alternative (especially after former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman dropped out to not take votes away from Romney), Perry dropped out of the race two days later, which ended up giving Gingrich much more breathing room on an election day full of inclement weather throughout South Carolina.
Gingrich defeated Romney in South Carolina, 40 percent to 28 percent. In addition, though
66 percent of primary voters approved of Nikki Haley’s job performance (if not for Sarah Palin’s endorsement, Haley would not be governor), Gingrich did better among those voters than Romney, 42 percent to 30 percent, according to exit polling, proving that Haley’s endorsement did not amount to much when up against Palin’s. Haley did not even bother to show up at Romney’s election night event.
While stumping for Romney last week, Bob McDonnell often said, “character counts and values matter,” in what was an obvious jab at Gingrich.
But “Teavangelicals” are trusting Palin.
As the race turns to Florida, both Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, fully aware of what occurred in South Carolina, have decided to stay neutral.
Whether Palin uses her considerable clout to exert any more influence on this election cycle — her keynote address at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in February seems like a prime venue to do so — remains to be seen.