The field of candidates seeking the GOP presidential nomination has been in a constant flux, and the role played by South Carolina’s “First in the South” primary has allowed it to ride the many waves of change. The latest candidate to be presented with an opportunity to win the early-voting Palmetto State is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose long-stagnant campaign has seen a recent surge of support.
South Carolina has played a key role in Republican Presidential politics since the primary was first held in 1980. Today, the state’s role in the Republican primary process is proclaimed by “We Pick Presidents” bumper stickers distributed by the state’s GOP. While the state’s GOP voters have sometimes backed established front-runners, like Ronald Reagan in 1980 and George W. Bush in 2000, they’ve also gone for those struggling to win elsewhere or making a late surge. Examples of the latter include John McCain, whose 2008 primary win helped his struggling campaign regain traction, and George H.W. Bush in 1988, who was trying to establish a firm lead in the primary field after finishing third in the Iowa caucuses and a tough fight in New Hampshire.
The 2012 primary has featured a large pack of candidates with lots of wild swings in support among them. South Carolina has not been left out of these rapidly-changing currents. Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Mike Huckabee and Rick Perry all generated considerable waves of early enthusiasm with state GOP activists, only to lose ground later on. The newest candidate to surge in the Palmetto State is Gingrich.
Bolstering polls that show growing voter support for Gingrich, GOP activists in the Palmetto State have begun taking increased interest in his candidacy. Growing turnout at campaign events is one promising for the former House speaker’s prospects in South Carolina. A case in point is a recent question-and-answer session hosted by Charleston Congressman Tim Scott and the College of Charleston, which attracted national news media and filled the venue’s seven hundred seats a full half hour before the event, forcing college officials to turn away many more. This was one of the largest turnouts for any Presidential campaign event in South Carolina so far in this cycle.
It’s not surprising that the state’s GOP voters are interested in Gingrich. He’s generally perceived as conservative, they’re conservative, and there are a lot of them (in 2000, around fifteen percent of the state’s population voted in the GOP primary). To appeal to those voters, Gingrich has focused on several issues where his past political experience gives him some credibility. For instance, he has touted his role in helping rein in deficits while House Speaker in the 1990s. He has also taken up issues with local appeal, such as challenging President Obama’s failure to support the state’s efforts to uphold federal immigration laws and the National Labor Relations Board’s efforts to shut down or force labor unions upon the Boeing’s new 787 plant in North Charleston.
This does not mean that victory in the state’s primary is assured. South Carolina voters have proven to be as fickle as national voters. Many voters have swung from candidate to candidate and many are still not firmly committed. Cain led here in October, while Perry led in August. While recent polls show ten to fifteen percent of potential primary voters are undecided, two of those polls (Rasmussen and CNN/Time) showed more than half of all decided voters are open to another candidate. Gingrich will have to work quickly to avoid becoming South Carolina’s next “flavor of the week.”
As many of the state’s more recognized Republican politicos have endorsed other candidates, Gingrich can’t play the VIP endorsement game. He has however picked up the support of a number of Tea Party leaders in recent weeks. They have praised his focused and detailed attention to issues, as well as his thoughtful performance in recent debates. But many of these activists either praised or openly supported other candidates in the race before turning to Gingrich. For example, while one activist came to his campaign after having worked for Huckabee and then Huntsman, and a key Santorum operative was seen at the recent College of Charleston event.
Gingrich’s South Carolina campaign is just starting to come together and is far behind other campaigns in getting organized. While his campaign has recruited plenty of activist supporters and out-of-state operatives, many of the state’s most seasoned and successful operatives have already signed on with other candidates. South Carolina is the kind of small state where having political vets who can build coalitions with influential citizens, maximize earned media from events and know which voters to target is at least as important as the paid media advertising campaigns. Since the campaign with the best ground team always finishes either first or second place in South Carolina primaries, Gingrich’s campaign has a lot to do and not much time left if they want to overcome the networks assembled by other campaigns.
Gingrich, whose campaign was nearly broke at one point, will also have to raise a lot of cash quickly. While South Carolina is not the most expensive state in which to campaign, a statewide race here can cost one or two million dollars a week in television advertising, which doesn’t include spending to pay for direct mail, payroll and other expenses.
South Carolina’s primaries have long been known for being intense. The state’s early position and small size mean a lot of attention can be focused upon the state by campaigns and news media. While those who start early usually fare best with the state’s primary voters, there is still room for those who rise after other candidates have peaked. In the last month, Gingrich has shown that he can get the attention of Palmetto State audiences. But in a state well-known for ending the Presidential ambitions of many candidates, translating his recent surge of support into victory in January will be an even greater challenge.
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