Newt Gingrich Wins the South Carolina Primary

Blogging news and events from the Palmetto State as voters handed the former speaker a big win


11:15 p.m. Final Tally. The final results, with 99 percent of votes in: Gingrich 40, Romney 28, Santorum 17, Paul 13. That's it for the night. Don't miss analysis from Robert Wright and Molly Ball.

9:49 p.m. Gingrich Speaks. The former speaker just finished speaking after his triumph. It's a tough speech to summarize: Gingrich touched on a variety of topics in almost stream-of-consciousness style while ticking off a variety of conservative bugaboos (Saul Alinsky, czars, Keystone XL, bowing to Saudi kings, the perfidy of elites). He conspicuously avoided attacking Mitt Romney or any of the other GOP candidates. Gingrich even seemed a bit humbled at the start. His remarks were lengthy, given the occasion, and it's safe to say that debates, not speeches, remain his strong suit.

8:36 p.m. Saturday Night Insta-Analysis. Molly Ball is writing a complete analysis of tonight's results later, but here are a few points to think on for the time being.

  • It isn't easy being Mitt. Before Thursday's debate, Romney had a double-digit lead in South Carolina and two victories -- Iowa and New Hampshire -- already under his belt. When he goes to bed tonight, he'll only have one victory, and New Hampshire was always considered a gimme for him (sorry, Jon Huntsman). Romney still has the best organization and biggest war-chest in the field, but there's no question that he suddenly looks much more vulnerable.
  • Gingrich's surprising demographics. Obviously, Gingrich -- a volatile, thrice-married, hothead -- is weak among women, evangelicals, and voter whose foremost concern is beating Obama, right? Not so much. Per CNN, Gingrich won a plurality of "conservative" and "very conservative" voters (no surprise) but he also won a plurality of women, married women, and evangelicals. He won a whopping 42 percent of the last group, with Romney taking 22 and Santorum, for all his social conservative credentials, getting only 20 percent. And the Georgina won nearly half of the voters who said their first priority is beating Obama. Apparently, Gingrich's pitch that is debating skills made him the only candidate capable of taking on the president convinced voters, but the result means that either South Carolinians are wrong, or every pundit in America is wrong. Time will tell.
  • Nikki Haley's bad night. If Mitt Romney had the worst day in South Carolina today, the governor had the second worst. Romney worked hard to woo her and finally did get convince her to back him, but she took a risk in doing so: she was on everyone's vice-presidential short list, and she'd check important boxes for Romney (female, southern, evangelical, and Tea Party). Hut she risked alienating Tea Partiers who helped elect her but don't trust Romney, who they see as a moderate. She lost that gamble, and looks a lot weaker now: she's squandered valuable in-state political capital, and any GOP nominee (including Romney) is going to be skeptical of her ability to deliver as a running mate, too.
  • Obama's good night. Campaign manager Jim Messina is going to sleep well tonight, because his boss got lucky. Not many commentators, even on the right, see Gingrich going all the way to the nomination, but no one doubts his capacity to tear down a rival -- a skill he proved with tonight's results. While Chicago would be delighted to run against a candidate with Gingrich's baggage, they're also OK with a scenario in which Gingrich hangs around for a long time and bloodies Romney up, so he's already punch-drunk by the general election. And if Newt somehow pulls it out and gets the nod? Even better, as far as Obama is concerned.

8:24 p.m. Playing the Hate Card. The Atlantic's Robert Wright has his analysis of the race up: "How Newt Won in Carolina: By Playing the Hate Card." Read it.

8:05 p.m. Romney's Speech. He's giving it now. Romney started off thanking Nikki Haley, the South Carolina governor whose endorsement he fiercely sought, only to lose the primary. But the heart of this speech is an attack on Gingrich, without naming him, for "demonizing success" and using "the weapons of the left," a particularly strong line: "Those who use those weapons today will see them turned against us tomorrow," he said.

7:34 p.m. County-by-County Results. Politico has a good map of the results from South Carolina as they come in, using Associated Press data. As you'll see, there are still very few votes counted -- just 0.5 percent as of writing. Rather jarringly, there are more votes for Romney so far, despite the call for Gingrich, because many results are in from the Charleston area, where Romney had strong support.

7:20 p.m. How He Did It. The Washington Post's Karen Tumulty puts her finger on it:

For the record, neither CNN nor the Associated Press has not called the race for Gingrich, but the other networks have. UPDATE, 7:22 p.m.: The AP now calls the race for Gingrich.

7:06 p.m. It's Gingrich. Both MSNBC and Fox are calling the primary for Newt Gingrich. Now the only question is how much he won by.

7:01 p.m. Whither Santorum? Something we're not hearing much about today is Rick Santorum. Despite his newly declared victory in Iowa, he's been something of an afterthought to the Romney-Gingrich battle. If he finishes a respectable third, he can make a compelling case for going on. But if he's well behind both of the others, it's tough to see his argument for staying in, since he still lacks the money and organization of Romney and the name-recognition and sheer indestructability of Gingrich, who has retaken the anti-Mitt mantle (it's a foregone conclusion that Rep. Ron Paul isn't going anywhere, regardless of how he does today). If Santorum gets trounced today, it's a double-whammy to Iowa. The Hawkeye State political establishment is already wringing its hands over the caucus recount controversy. If it looks like the Pennsylvanian is out, it will suggest that not only is Iowa incompetent at counting its votes, it's too susceptible to politicians who are willing to shake every hand in the state but aren't really viable outside of it.

7 p.m. And polls are closed.

6:56 p.m. A Trojan horse? A little earlier, we mentioned that there's talk of Dems going out to vote for Gingrich, hoping to push the GOP into the arms of a man they see as unpredictable and unelectable. It's not just average South Carolinians. Our own Molly Ball saw Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, the Floridian head of the Democratic National Party, at Gingrich's victory party. Was she there as a supporter? "Yes, absolutely." Snarky!

6:54 p.m. For What It's Worth. Here's some analysis from famed political guru Alec Baldwin:

6:45 p.m. Friendly Reminder. Polls close in 15 minutes.

6:40 Reality Check. Assuming Gingrich wins tonight, it's worth a sober look at the road ahead for him. Recent polls in Florida, site the next primary, have Romney leading by around 15 points. Don't miss Reid Wilson's article on why Romney is still in the catbird seat. UPDATE: Notably, National Review Editor Rich Lowry also says this reminds him of John McCain's 2000 win in New Hampshire -- a surprise, but not the kind that results in a nomination.

6:27 p.m. Spintastic! McKay Coppins got a great quote from a Romney aide. It's clear that the former Massachusetts governor's camp is expecting to get shellacked tonight -- they've been downplaying expectations for two days, and are now openly predicting defeat. "I think we're going to lose tonight, we could lose big. But I think it's been a terrible week for Gingrich and a great week for us," the anonymous aide said. "When we go up against Newt, it helps us in the general election. It's not an ideological thing as much as judgment -- the total gestalt of it."

Three thoughts. First, that's an impressively positive spin on a bad day, so points for creativity. Two, who uses the word "gestalt," other than Newt Gingrich himself? Three, you've got to get to the general election. Even if he loses big tonight, it's true that Romney is the strongest candidate, with a big war chest, a disciplined organization, and great polling in Florida. But he'll also be a weakened candidate, with only one primary victory, and the aura of inevitability will be gone.

5:39 p.m. Exit Poll: Undebatable. If Gingrich wins tonight, expect to hear more about this: a CBS exit poll of South Carolina voters finds that an amazing two-thirds of them said recent debates were a major factor in their decision today. Brian Montopoli sums it up succinctly:

Sixty-four percent said the debates were an important factor for them; just 34 percent said they were not. Gingrich won standing ovations in both debates while Romney often struggled -- and at one point received a smattering of boos for equivocating over how many years of his tax returns he would release.

That sound you hear is Newt 2012 headquarters staffers rubbing their hands together in anticipation.

4:51 p.m. I Voted ... For Better Stickers. Sure, Iowa might be red-faced over losing eight precincts' votes and then switching the winner in the caucus, but South Carolina has a silly Election Day mixup too. Charleston's Post and Courier reports that some precincts received tiny "I Voted" stickers -- so small, in fact, that wise guys are comparing them to the stickers that come on bananas. As Rick Perry would say, oops!

4:26 p.m. Surely He's Got Something Else to Do. Mitt Romney's son Tagg posted this picture of his father to Twitter. He does know there's a primary going on, right? Or is he just giving up on this one?

4:20 p.m. Dampened Turnout? It's raining in much of South Carolina this afternoon, with steady showers and even forecasts of possible tornadoes and hail. There's no consensus on who low turnout would help the most, although Ron Paul's camp told The Hill they thought it'd be good for the Texas representative because his backers are so fanatical. In non-weather-related news, Twitter is abuzz with suggestions that Democrats are going out today -- the primary is open, meaning anyone can cast a ballot, regardless of registration -- to vote for Gingrich and prolong the contest, but it's hard to verify how much it's really happening and harder to imagine it mattering. And Slate's Dave Weigel shot this picture in Charleston, which doesn't look like there are flocks of voters even in drier climes:


4:09 p.m. A Whole Newt World? By now, even the most casual political watcher knows the big story for the day is whether Newt Gingrich can complete his improbable comeback -- his umpteenth of the campaign -- and ride to victory tonight. If his bravado is any indication, he certainly thinks so (see Hamgate below). But what do the numbers say? On Saturday, American Research Group released a poll, conducted over the prior two days, showing Gingrich with a 40-26 lead over Romney. What's amazing isn't just the 14 point gap -- it's the speed with which it's opened. Another ARG poll released two days earlier had the two neck and neck, with Gingrich a single point ahead. It suggests that the former speaker's feisty style, on full display in Thursday night's debate, is exciting South Carolina voters, and revelations about his second marriage aren't hurting him. Meanwhile, FiveThirtyEight stats whiz Nate Silver pegged Gingrich's chance at winning at a stunning 87 percent.

4 p.m. Hello, South Carolina! Thanks for joining us this afternoon. Here's a quick rundown of essential Atlantic coverage so far.

Polls close at 7 p.m. We'll keep you updated on major developments here. For more, follow us on Twitter: Molly Ball in South Carolina, as well as David Graham and TheAtlanticPol.

Recapping the Morning. As voters go to the polls today, the candidates are stumping to get out the remaining votes and try to convince undecideds. The biggest story this morning was the so-called "Hamgate." Both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich were originally scheduled to be at Tommy's Country Ham House in Greenvile around 10:45. Trail reporters amassed at the scene, looking forward to a brawl (or what passes for one between grown men campaigning for president). They were disappointed: Romney showed up closer to 10, said his hellos, then left, leaving behind a mild mob scene. If the reporters were bummed, Gingrich was really disappointed. Upon arriving, he almost immediately asked, "Where's Mitt?" while Gingrich press secretary Nathan Naidu mocked Romney on Twitter.

Elsewhere on the trail, there's chatter about Romney's busloads of student supporters. Scads of enthusiastic teens and twentysomethings waving signs were appearing at events -- but from where? Not South Carolina, it seems. Here's McKay Coppins with the scoop:

No, many of the students cheering on the candidate told BuzzFeed they were actually BYU students and young Mormons from D.C. and Virginia who traveled to the Palmetto State to give their coreligionist's presidential effort a much-needed jolt of energy.

Initially, there were reports that Romney had paid to bus in the students, some of whom also came from the Mormon college Southern Virginia University, but his campaign says that's not true.

Image: Reuters