South Carolina has been the grave of insurgents, most recently helping John McCain bury Mike Huckabee in 2008; in 2000 it was McCain who lost out to George W Bush. But this time around, things are looking very fluid. It appears that ALL the candidates may have peaked too soon.
- Mitt Romney leads, but barely – from a high of 37% just last week, he’s now polling in the mid-twenties.
- Newt Gingrich is just a couple of points back now, at 21% – down from his peak of 43% in November.
- Likewise, Rick Santorum peaked right after Iowa, at 24%, which would have given him the lead today – but he’s fallen to the mid teens.
- Ron Paul is rising – boosted by his second-place NH finish, he’s currently at his best ever in the state. But that’s just 13%.
- Likewise, Jon Huntsman’s strong NH showing has boosted him in SC – but so far that’s just from 3% to 7%.
In other words… with four mediocre Not Mitts dividing the vote (plus Rick Perry still snagging a few percent), Romney may squeak through to “victory” with a pathetic 25%.
A different playing field
What happened to the New Hampshire momentum?
Pollster.com’s Mark Blumenthal says that the granite state was just too different:
- New Hampshire voters were familiar with Romney from his four years as governor of Massachusetts and his earlier U.S. Senate run…
- That popularity helped Romney carry nearly every demographic subgroup in New Hampshire. Paul ran first among voters under age 40 and those with annual incomes under $30,000, but Romney ran ahead with all other groups.
- In New Hampshire, he was the first choice of Tea Party supporters (winning 41 percent of their vote), strong conservatives (29 percent) and self-described evangelical or born-again Christians (31 percent).
- Without the boost of favorite-son status for Romney, exit polls past and present suggest that South Carolina has the potential to be far more favorable to candidates like Santorum, Newt Gingrich or even Rick Perry.
But the headlines on January 25th aren’t going to read “Not Mitt Wins South Carolina”. Romney may have only won Iowa by 8 votes, but everyone cast that as a “victory”. Blumenthal warns that the same thing could happen here.
Any one of [Santorum, Gingrich, or Perry] might have the potential to consolidate support among the most conservative and evangelical voters, but with all three running, those votes are likely to split.
Such a split occurred in South Carolina in 2008, when self-described conservatives divided their votes among Mike Huckabee (35 percent), John McCain (26 percent), Fred Thompson (19 percent) and Romney (16 percent). But since McCain won 50 percent of the votes cast by non-conservatives, he was able to carry South Carolina by three points (33 to 30 percent) over Huckabee.
And that three-point win was enough to sink Huckabee (who had won Iowa) and allow McCain – as weak and flawed a candidate as he was – to win the nomination.
Mitt may emerge from South Carolina the victor – but even weaker than McCain.
What’s Mitt’s problem? He’s getting pounded five separate ways, and the critique seems to be taking hold. As the National Journal’s Ron Fournier points out,
…Mitt Romney easily won New Hampshire’s primary Tuesday night, stepping to the brink of the GOP nomination with a historic sweep of the first two presidential contests. But this past week exposed his existential vulnerability: Romney is easily cast as a cold-hearted phony.
And the really fun part is… it looks like he’s going to snag the nomination anyway! Which is good news for President Obama, who you can bet is going to hammer Romney with those same critiques, and quote his GOP opponents.
And all things considered, that’s a good thing for the planet.