Saturday, January 21, 2012

Live-blogging the 2012 South Carolina primary: Newt rising, Mitt stumbling, the GOP in disarray


7:22 pm - It being Saturday evening, and with other things to do (like spending some quality time with the family), I won't be live-blogging quite to the extent I did for the Iowa and New Hampshire votes. But I'll be back with updates throughout the night.

7:25 pm - The polls were showing a potentially big win for Newt, and today the exit polls are showing very much the same: Gingrich 38, Romney 29, Santorum 17, Paul 15. (Wouldn't it be something if Newt passed the 40 percent mark?) I was predicting an 8-point Newt win, but with so much momentum on his side, with the tide turning so dramatically in his favor, I wouldn't be surprised if he won by 10 or more.

7:31 pm - Only 2 percent of precincts are reporting. For what it's worth, which isn't much, it's 40-32 for Romney. You can follow the returns here.

7:32 pm - As I won't have much time tonight to much in the way of analysis or lengthy commentary, let me point you to a few posts I wrote in recent days:

Needless to say, the answer to the questions posed above, in the second and fourth posts, is a resounding No.

7:40 pm - And that's it. CNN has called it for Newt. Looks like all the drama in South Carolina was in the days leading up to today. There no drama tonight, and I suppose now all we have to focus on is the margin of victory, specifically: Will Newt hit 40 percent? And/or will he win by 10 points? A thorough drubbing of Romney would certainly make things a whole lot more interesting as we turn our attention to Florida, with the primary there coming up in 10 days, on January 31.

More questions: Will Santorum drop out after this? If so, will he endorse Newt? And if Newt is the only viable anti-Romney alternative left (because Paul isn't a viable contender), will conservatives rally behind him? (Newt will certainly need more money and better organization if he hopes to contend in Florida and beyond.) Or will they hold their noses and turn to Romney?

And what of the generally pro-Romney party elites? At what point does panic set in? Or has it already?

4:04 pm (the next day) - Well, obviously, I didn't get back to blogging last night, nor, until now, today. There just wasn't much to say (and I was too busy to say it anyway). Newt won. By a lot. And he hit those two artificial marks I identified: 40 percent of the vote, 10+-point margin of victory -- with a 40-28 win over Romney, with Santorum in third at 17 and Paul in fourth at 13. It played out as expected, or at least as it had come to be expected with Newt's late surge. He just won by a few more points than I thought he would.

4:07 pm (watching the Ravens-Pats game) - So what does it all mean? Well, it means that Newt has established himself as the largely unchallenged conservative alternative to Romney (Santorum doesn't have much left), that Romney is incredibly weak (with an overwhelming majority of Republicans looking for someone else, even a tainted blowhard like Newt), and that the race will go on, which is exactly what's best for the media, if not the GOP.

4:10 pm - Here's Chait:

My view all along has been that any remotely plausible candidate could beat Mitt Romney. My current view is that there are no remotely plausible candidates, which leaves us with Newt. So we have the immovable object meeting the irresistible force, except the exact opposite. Like almost everybody outside Gingrich's immediate family, I had already written him off twice. But he really seems okay. If some really crazy rich conservatives decide to write him some seven- or eight-figure checks, who knows?

Right, who knows?

Unless the Romney-leaning elites are prepared for a brokered convention, they'll have to do even more to try to derail Newt. Apparently what they did to him in Iowa wasn't enough. And yet, the reality of the GOP right now is that it's deeply divided and unhappy with its options. Even if the elites succeeded in knocking off Newt, the risk is that they'll further alienate the party's conservative base, everyone from Dear Leader Rush all the way down to your average right-wing redneck in South Carolina.

Basically, the situation is perfect for the emergence of a compromise candidate -- sufficiently conservative but also with appeal to independents, and hence electable -- who can bring the party together. But can that even happen? Such an alternative, if one could even be found, couldn't get on primary ballots, and of course it's not like Romney would ever play along. Jeb Bush? Maybe, if his last name weren't Bush. But who else? Christie? Jindal? Ryan? Rubio? No one other than Jeb seems to have what it would take. And so the party remains deeply divided without a clear resolution in sight.

4:20 pm - Here's Marshall:

Newt Gingrich isn't going to be the GOP nominee. I'm not saying Romney will be, though I think it's still very likely. You can never say never in politics. But I think the anchor point for understanding where we are right now is that the institutional GOP, the establishment Republican party, won't let Newt get the nomination.

Look at these numbers: nationwide Newt Gingrich’s favorability number is 26.5%, unfavorable 58.6%. (see the chart here.)

It would be quite difficult for Newt Gingrich to beat President Obama. The bigger story is that he would likely devastate the congressional Republican party. He'd probably weigh down the GOP up and down the ticket. And that puts the whole thing in much sharper relief for Republican officeholders, committee chairs and money folks.

If I'm right about that, that means they have to and will do virtually everything possible now to crush Gingrich and make Romney the nominee.

My best guess is that Gingrich will come on strong or even win Florida. And it'll be bad for Mitt for a while. But eventually Mitt and really the GOP establishment will just grind him down. Do I know that? Not at all. Unless Mitt can totally shut Gingrich down in Florida, it's really all bets are off territory. But again, the one thing I think you can rely on is that Gingrich isn't the nominee — simply because I think the costs to the GOP are simply too grave to let it happen.

I think I agree with all that. Unless the party turns to someone like Jeb, the race is still Mitt's to lose. And we know he's in it for the long haul, with money and organization well beyond anything Newt has.

It's certainly possible that Newt will win Florida, or at least finish a close second, but beyond that he'll say something or do something that reminds voters just who he is. It's just hard to imagine that he'll be able to make it through the long primary season without somehow imploding. And of course Mitt and the elites -- the so-called "establishment" -- will do everything in their power to make that happen.

So I think it's still fairly safe to say that it'll be Romney in the end -- but, by then, just how damaged will he be?

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