How Newt Gingrich can win the GOP nomination
Despite a strong showing in South Carolina, Newt Gingrich still faces an uphill battle to win the Republican presidential nomination. Mitt Romney has numerous advantages from a larger campaign war chest to a far-reaching ground game.
However, as Gingrich has proven this week, these advantages can be trumped with pointed attacks and conservative rhetoric. The question remains, though, whether Gingrich can sustain the momentum from Saturday's victory moving forward. An analysis of the CBS News exit poll of South Carolina voters suggests a number of campaign strategies that could allow Gingrich to eventually secure the nomination.
Gingrich has been at his best during the debates. He altered the course of the campaign in South Carolina with his debate performances this week, flipping a double-digit deficit in the pre-election polls taken last weekend into a 12-point victory at the ballot box this weekend. Sixty-five percent of South Carolina Republican primary voters said the debates were one of the most important factors in deciding whom to support. Among those who thought the debates were important to their decision, a whopping 50 percent of voters preferred Gingrich while only 23 percent preferred Romney for the Republican nomination.
During the debates, Gingrich has been particularly effective at deflecting criticisms and turning them into talking points for his campaign. In the debate in Myrtle Beach on Monday, he used charges that he was racial insensitive for calling President Obama the "food stamp president" as an opportunity to promote work-at-school programs for disadvantaged children, saying, "only the elites despise earning money."
On the debate in Charleston Thursday night, he turned the potentially damaging allegation by his second wife that he wanted an "open marriage" into a stinging indictment of the "destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media."
If Gingrich can continue to dominate debates with his sharp tongue and quick wit, the accompanying media coverage of these events can serve to offset at least some of the massive ad buys by the Romney campaign.
He will have an opportunity to debate his competitors twice more before the Florida primary on January 31. On this coming Monday night, the Tampa Bay Times, NBC News, National Journal, and the Florida Council of 100 will host a debate at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Later in the week on Thursday, CNN and the Republican Party of Florida will sponsor a debate in Jacksonville.
Emphasize his conservative credentials
Romney has struggled to appeal to right wing voters, doing far better with moderates than with strong conservatives. In Iowa, he attracted only 14 percent support from very conservative caucus goers. On his home turf of New Hampshire, he did 15 points worse among very conservative voters than somewhat conservative voters. And, in South Carolina on Saturday, he lost to Gingrich among very conservative voters by a whopping 48 percent to 19 percent margin.
Gingrich needs to exploit voters' wariness with Romney's conservative credentials in the contests to come. One way to do this is to spotlight social-moral issues, a real weakness for the Romney campaign. In South Carolina, one-out of-eight very conservative voters identified abortion as the most important factor in their vote decision. Amongst this group, Romney attracted only 3 percent support. In New Hampshire, where Romney defeated Gingrich 39 percent to 9 percent in the overall vote, Gingrich only lost to Romney by 9 percentage points among voters who considered themselves very conservative on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
Exploit Romney's privileged background
Romney has made few missteps during the campaign, but when he has they have centered on his privileged background. Romney tried to make Rick Perry a $10,000 bet during one of the debates, described his nearly $375,000 speaking fees as "not very much," and conceded that he pays an effective tax rate of roughly 15 percent. Even worse, his time as the CEO of Bain Capital in the eighties and nineties raised questions about the cost cutting measures he used when trying to turn around failing businesses.
Gingrich and his rivals have exploited these mistakes to great success in the first three contests, characterizing Romney as out-of-touch with the lives of low-income Americans. In South Carolina, Romney lost to Gingrich 40 percent to 25 percent among voters from households earning less than $50,000. In Iowa, Romney finished third, 16 percentage points behind Ron Paul, among voters from households earning less than $50,000, And, on his home turf of New Hampshire, where Romney won the overall vote by 16 percentage points, he only managed to tie Ron Paul among low-income voters.
In the South Carolina Republican primary, Gingrich's attacks on Romney's days at Bain Capital proved to be particularly deadly. More than a quarter of voters - 28 percent - had negative views about Romney's background of investing and restructuring companies. Of this group, only 3 percent cast their ballots for Romney. Moving forward, Gingrich should continue to characterize Romney as an elitist with questionable business acumen.At left, watch the key quotes from all the candidates' speeches after the South Carolina primary
Encourage Santorum to Drop Out
Evangelical voters are a key constituency in the Republican campaign. They have sided with the winner in all three contests to date. But if Gingrich is to win the nomination, evangelical voters in states to come must coalesce around him. Santorum, though, stands in his way, attracting large numbers at each stop.
In South Carolina, Gingrich easily won evangelical voters, receiving 45 percent of their support compared to 21 percent for Santorum and 21 percent for Romney. While the votes Santorum peeled off did not prove costly on Saturday, a divided evangelical vote could undermine Gingrich's success in upcoming states. Gingrich's campaign must implore Santorum to drop out of the race before Super Tuesday or sooner, to improve his chances of topping the Republican ticket.
Florida is the next contest on the docket with a sizable evangelical constituency, comprising 39 percent of the electorate in the 2008 Republican primary. Before the South Carolina primary even took place, though, some evangelical leaders in the state were already endorsing Santorum, such as John Stemberger, the president of Florida Family Action. If Gingrich is too have any chance in a massive state where advertising dollars matter, he needs to be able to court the evangelical vote without competition from another social conservative.
The need to coalesce evangelical voters becomes even more critical on Super Tuesday when several of the states holding contests have amongst the largest evangelical populations in the nation. In 2008, 46 percent of the voters in the Virginia Republican primary identified as evangelical. In Georgia, evangelicals comprised 62 percent of the Republican electorate in 2008, And, a whopping 73 percent of those casting ballots in the Tennessee Republican primary identified themselves as evangelical voters.
As well as Gingrich did in South Carolina, the Republican primary calendar sets up far better for Romney in the coming weeks. While Gingrich has a good chance of performing well in the Florida primary on January 31, the following month is comprised of states where he faces far greater obstacles. Gingrich must remain patient until Super Tuesday on March 6, where his prospects are much better.
The first week of February bring caucuses in four states - Nevada, Maine, Colorado, and Minnesota - where Romney's organizational advantages will likely yield dividends. February concludes with primaries in Arizona and Michigan, locations that are more conducive to Romney. Arizona has a sizable number of Mormon voters, while Michigan is where Romney was born and raised and his father was a popular governor. Together, though, these contests account for only eight percent of the delegates up for grabs. If Gingrich can soften expectations and remain at least competitive - both daunting tasks - then he can attempt to turn the tide on Super Tuesday in the first week in March when roughly 25 percent of the delegates are at stake.
Poll results discussed in this article are based on a National Election Pool exit poll conducted by Edison Media Research. Interviews were conducted with 2381 primary voters as they exited precincts around South Carolina. The margin of error for the poll is +/-3 percentage points.
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