It really is amazing that just a week ago, Romney was 2-0, Huntsman was dropping out and his "moderate" supporters were supposed to flock to Romney, Romney was polling 10 points ahead in SC and about 25 points ahead in Florida. Fast forward to today, literally just 7 days later, Romney is 1-2, Huntsman supporters clearly didn't flock to Romney, Newt won SC by 12.6 points and is now leading in 2 Florida polls by 9 points.
I realize this is partly par for the course in what has been a very volatile race where Michelle Bachmann, Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich were all front runners at one point or another before a single vote was cast and now we've had 3 contests and 3 different winners. But I think the result in South Carolina was especially important for a several reasons:
1. The Romney electability argument is in tatters. The only real argument I ever heard for why we should nominate Romney is that he is the most electable in the field (it's not like they could point to his record in Massachusetts). If you want to beat Obama, he is your man. It doesn't necessarily feel that way right now does it? If you add this year's contests to his electoral record, he is now 6-19. To put that into perspective, that is a worse record than both the Buffalo Bills (10) and Cleveland Browns (7) have over their last 25 contests. You'd actually have to go down to the St. Louis Rams, who are 5-20, for a worse record. Perhaps nominating a 1 term Governor who left with a 34% approval rating isn't the greatest idea?
2. It's clear that money and organization are nice but it is better to connect with voters. Romney really does seem like the second coming of George H.W. Bush, complete with John Sununu. Like the elder Bush, Romney has a horrible time connecting with voters, not really being to understand what makes them tick. In 1980, Bush ran on his resume and by spouting generalities of what he would do as President. Romney seems to be using the same playbook. Can anyone remember any part of Romney's 59 point Bain Consulting powerpoint presentation pitch, errr, I mean plan? With Newt, you remember that he wants to institute a 15% flat tax and get rid of capital gains. He also points out specific things that he would do to help the locals wherever he campaigns. In South Carolina, Newt kept talking about the I-73 corridor and the Port of Charleston. In New Hampshire, he would talk about being able to provide power to Boston without hurting New Hampshire's natural beauty. In Iowa it was ethanol. It really is nice when a national politician comes into your town and instead of giving some canned speech that he could give 3,000 miles away actually does show that he cares about the local citizens. Newt was also able to connect very well in the debates. People are upset about the state of things and want someone who shares that feeling. Newt capitalized on this feeling just as Reagan did at the debate in Nashua, NH when he resurrected his flailing campaign by yelling at the moderator "I paid for this microphone Mr. Green". As George Will wrote back then: "Americans are getting angry and seeking authenticity, and Reagan gave them authentic anger... When Reagan is aroused he is the most effective campaigner in living memory." (Side note: This quote came from Rendevous with Destiny by Craig Shirley, an excellent chronicle of the 1980 campaign, definitely pick up a copy).
Romney seems to be able to get angry at Perry not letting him finish a statement in a debate and Perry using edits in Romney's own book against him but other than that he seems to be about as passionate as toothpaste. That's okay if your opponent is a technocrat like Mike Dukakis who wears a shirt and tie in a tank and can't seem to get upset when asked in a national debate "Governor, if Kitty Dukakis [his wife] were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?" Not so okay if your opponent is a Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton or even a Barack Obama.
Oh and one more comment about Romney and his seemingly over-rated organization, if it was so good, why did he have to bus in BYU students to populate his rallies? Wouldn't actual citizens of South Carolina have been better?
3. Romney continues to not get any benefit from candidates exiting the race, even if they endorse him. Remember when Jon Huntsman left the race and endorsed Mitt Romney? The conventional wisdom is that these voters would go to Mitt Romney as he was the other "moderate" in the race. That doesn't seem to be the case as Romney's favorability seems to have done nothing but go down since that endorsement (perhaps Huntsman gave him the cheese touch). It actually looks like some of the Huntsman supporters went to Newt, according to this Byron York piece. The same thing seemed to have happened this summer when Tim Pawlenty got out of the race and endorsed Romney. His supporters seemed to go anywhere but. I guess the point is that if you wanted to support Romney you would have done so already given the mindless support he receives from the Republican establishment.
4. Turnout Showed That South Carolina Voted for Newt with Conviction. Turnout in Iowa and New Hampshire were pretty low, both down around 10% from 2008 if you adjust for the surge of Democrats, Independents and stoner college students who added to Paul's totals (turnout was up only 2.5% in IA and 6% in NH if you include everyone, pretty disappointing considering the Democratic race is noncompetitive and just out of sheer boredom turnout should increase). Conversely, turnout in South Carolina was up a whopping 35% and still up 21% if you adjust for the Paul voters. A low turnout election victory is a lot like a stock or the stock market going up on low volume, yes it is moving, but without any conviction, so it won't take much to reverse course. From this point of view, the Santorum victory in Iowa, where he won with less votes than Romney received in his disappointing showing in 2008, and Romney's victory in New Hampshire were won without conviction on the part of voters. No wonder neither "victor" received much of a bounce in the next race. It's pretty clear from the South Carolina vote totals that the base is very excited about Newt right now and couldn't wait to cast their votes for him.
5. According to the exit polls, there are no obvious kinks in Newt's victory in South Carolina. Sometimes you can look at exit polls and figure out that a candidate won because of a disproportionate vote amongst a certain subgroup, like Santorum winning Iowa due to his victory amongst evangelicals in an evangelical heavy state. In South Carolina, Newt's victory was as almost as complete as you can make it. Newt won among both men and women (so much for affairs hurting him), all age groups over the age of 30 (under 30 went to Paul), college graduates and those without college experience, all income groups under $200k a year (representing 95% of the exit poll sample, so much for his "insulting" comments on the poor), Republicans AND Independents, and anyone who considers themselves at least somewhat conservative. Romney, on the other hand, was able to carry graduate students (by only 2%), those making over $200k (somehow only connecting to the top 1-5% of the electorate doesn't sound like a winning strategy, mathematically, in a democracy), moderates and liberals (by only 3%) and pro-choice voters. Essentially the voters who tend to vote Democratic in general elections. It looks like voters understand something that the National Review doesn't, that Romney is an elitist moderate of mushy ideals.
Looking forward to Florida, based on these numbers, Newt seems to be in a good position, at least for now (in this campaign, visibility is no more than 24 hours, it is a relative eternity until Florida votes). He actually received 47% of the 65+ vote in South Carolina which should be nice for him down there. Also, his skepticism about Ryan's now failed medicare reform plan (his current one only takes effect after Medicare is scheduled to go bankrupt), and his views on immigration will probably help him in Florida, with its older and more heterogeneous population.
Anyway, we'll see what happens. I have a sense that the Romney campaign is about to get completely unhinged as they desperately try to save his candidacy. For example, what was up with their demand that Newt release the report of the ethics committee? You know, the report that has been online for more than a decade? Also, Romney seems to be personally attacking Newt on the stump now instead of using surrogates. The next couple of debates should get interesting though Romney should remember that Newt's attack muffin phase wasn't working so well when he was attacking fellow Republicans. GOP voters don't want to know that you can attack Republicans with passion, they want to know you will fight for them and against the establishment of Washington when you get there.