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Electoral meltdown: Where Romney went wrong in South Carolina

January 23, 2012|By James Oliphant
(John Moore/Getty Images )

Mitt Romney’s stunning loss in South Carolina was as broad-based as his win in the previous primary in New Hampshire, according to exit polls, raising new questions about his ability to reach a wide assortment of voters.

And perhaps most troubling for Romney’s campaign is that Newt Gingrich, who came from behind to swamp Romney in the Palmetto State by more than 10 percentage points, received the most support from voters worried about the economy. Romney has built his message around his talents as a turnaround specialist.

South Carolina is viewed as an extremely conservative state--and the conventional wisdom before Romney’s easy win in New Hampshire was that he would struggle there. But Gingrich, surprisingly, also won among independents Saturday.

Independents went for Gingrich over Romney by 31% to 25%, according to exit poll data from CNN. Voters who described themselves as “somewhat liberal” also preferred Gingrich by a razor’s edge over Romney (30% to 29%), although Romney won among self-described moderates 36% to 31% and he won the most votes overall in the “moderate or liberal” category.

Romney was pummeled, however, on the conservative end of the spectrum.  Those voters who describe themselves as “conservative” went for Gingrich by 11 points. And while Romney showed some appeal among evangelical and “tea party” voters in New Hampshire, that wasn’t manifest down South.

Gingrich won those categories handily, particularly voters who described themselves as “born again.” The support of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley didn’t seem to do much for Romney in that regard. Those who approve of her job as governor still went for Gingrich over Romney.

Gingrich won among men and--in a surprise--women. Romney had been expected to do better with female voters. He won support from voters in all income levels except those making more than $200,000 a year, a sign that perhaps Gingrich’s attacks on Romney’s work as a venture capitalist had some effect.

But here’s where the real problem lies for Camp Romney: electability and the economy.

Voters by a wide margin (51% to 37%) believed Gingrich to be more electable than the former Massachusetts governor.  Much of Romney’s appeal has rested on the notion that he is the only Republican in the race with a shot at defeating President Obama. South Carolinians clearly disagreed.  

Gingrich also outpaced Romney among voters who said they were “very worried” about the economy and bested Romney among voters who said they were “somewhat worried.”

And in a stark sign that Romney is still struggling to connect with the GOP base, just 2% of voters said Romney was a “true conservative.” Despite attempts by his opponents to tie Gingrich to climate change via Nancy Pelosi and the health insurance mandate, 37% of those surveyed said Gingrich is a “true conservative.”

It remains to be seen whether South Carolina is a one-shot, an outlier, as the campaign now shifts to Florida. But in every primary since 1980, the winner in the Palmetto State went on to be the GOP nominee. That may be one more disconcerting statistic for the Romney campaign to chew over.

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