Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

South Carolina: Another Unpredictable Point In Campaign Full Of Them

Newt Gingrich at the Grapevine Restaurant in Spartanburg, S.C.,  Saturday, Jan. 21, 2012.
Matt Rourke
Newt Gingrich at the Grapevine Restaurant in Spartanburg, S.C., Saturday, Jan. 21, 2012.

The race for the 2012 Republican presidential campaign has been anything but predictable.

It's been the first contest in memory, for instance, with a candidate, Mitt Romney, who was reputedly the inevitable nominee but so suspect in many Republicans' eyes that they kept searching for an alternative. That has led to nearly every candidate in the crowded field, at one time or another, challenging for front-runner status.

It's been a race where, Rick Santorum, the former U.S. senator who was once far back in the pack, won the Iowa caucuses despite having little money versus his rivals.

And it's been a race where Newt Gingrich, whose campaign appeared to be in rigor mortis last summer, rose miraculously from the dead.

So it really shouldn't come as a surprise that on the day of the First-In-The-South primary in South Carolina, the outcome is as uncertain as is what comes next.

The Palmetto State, of course, can proudly claim that it has correctly chosen the eventual Republican nominee for more than 30 years. Since Ronald Reagan in 1980, it has been the firewall for front-runners, stopping insurgent candidacies cold.

But with a number of the latest polls showing Newt Gingrich with a small lead, it's possible he could win the state, despite a spate of last-minute dirty tricks directed against him.

Would he then go on to win the nomination and allow South Carolina to maintain its reputation for choosing the eventual GOP nominee? Who knows? That's another part of the wild unpredictability of this year's Republican race.

Thus, this may be the year when South Carolina stops being the kingmaker in the quadrennial Republican presidential contest. In 2012, even the reliable predictor of a state has become unpredictable.

If Gingrich does win, it would be a case of South Carolina Republicans choosing an establishment candidate without picking the establishment candidate (Romney). They could have their cake and eat it, too.

"Gingrich fits the bill," says Dave Woodard, a political scientist at Clemson University. "He's been in Washington, he has experience. He's a well-known name, he's vetted. If you had to say who's the more establishment candidate (in the eyes of many South Carolina Republicans at least), it's probably more Gingrich than Romney." Clemson's latest poll gives Gingrich a 6 percentage point lead over Romney.

If Gingrich wins, that could change the race in Florida, where the latest polls show Romney enjoying a lead but where Gingrich had led earlier.

"We're kind of a litmus test for the South, which is one of the bases of the Republican Party, and I still think there would be a spillover from here into Florida, just because of cultural similarities," said Woodard who examined southern voting patterns closely for his book The New Southern Politics.

"I am astonished at how many counties vote consistently Republican all across the South, I mean from Dallas-Fort Worth down to Tallahassee all the way up to Henrico County in Virginia. They just have a lot in common," Woodard said.

"And you just think the way Lexington County votes or Greenville votes or North Charleston votes, it's going to resonate in Charlotte and up in Nashville, a lot of places."

Given that, if Romney manages to pull off a victory in South Carolina on Saturday, one thing that can safely be predicted is that the GOP party officials who see the former Massachusetts governor as the most electable of the candidates will be able to exhale.

A stronger than expected South Carolina win would allow Romney to head into Florida with the wind at his back.

A narrow victory wouldn't exactly be a strong gust. But it would be propulsion nonetheless.

The Florida primary on Jan. 31 arguably should play to Romney's strengths, according to the conventional wisdom. He has the money and widespread organization needed to compete strongly in the Sunshine State with its 10 media markets.

If he doesn't come in first in South Carolina, Florida could become his new firewall.

But even with those advantages going into Florida, Romney would obviously be damaged by a South Carolina loss to Gingrich. It would mean he had won only one of the first three contests. (After saying Santorum and Romney essentially tied in the Iowa caucuses, the state's Republican Party late Friday officially declared Santorum the winner.)

Much of that damage to Romney has been self-inflicted. Some of it could have been foreseen. As when he ran for president in 2008, one of Romney's biggest vulnerabilities this election cycle was his shifting position on issues key to conservatives, like abortion and gay marriage.

His role in enacting a health care law with a mandate requiring individuals to have insurance when he was Massachusetts governor was also a well known liability.

But some damage was unpredicted. For a seasoned candidate who experienced the rigors of a presidential campaign before, Romney has stumbled badly on the question of releasing his tax returns.

He has been defensive and hesitant, finally agreeing to release his 2011 return in April (thus withholding that information from most primary voters) and dodgy on whether he would release any other returns.

Who could have predicted that an experienced candidate whose had years to figure out a way to manage this issue, could have mishandled it so badly?

Something else that can be predicted is the results of South Carolina will wind up winnowing the field, just as Iowa and New Hampshire have done.

That means unless Santorum has an unexpectedly strong showing in South Carolina and manages to become the not-Romney candidate with all the momentum, he will face pressure to leave the race, especially as money grows tight and Florida looms.

Amid so much unpredictability, it can also be safely predicted that Rep. Ron Paul of Texas will continue deep into the primaries, using the national platform as a way to advocate for his libertarian ideas. And while he hasn't said he would run as a third-party candidate, he hasn't said that he wouldn't, either, adding another element of unpredictability in what has been a very fluid GOP presidential contest.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.