Newt Gingrich’s Saturday win in South Carolina’s Republican presidential primary continues to fracture the Republican party as it selects a candidate to run against President Barack Obama in November.
Winning 40 percent of the vote with 100 percent of precincts reporting, Gingrich, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, was followed by former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who secured roughly 28 percent of the vote. Rick Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, won 17 percent of the vote with Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas and Medicine ’61 coming in fourth with 13 percent.
Gingrich’s win comes as somewhat of a surprise after the candidate successfully closed a large 20-point deficit in the polls that he held after the New Hampshire primary Jan. 10. Romney, coming off of a victory in New Hampshire and a close second finish behind Santorum in Iowa, was the favorite going into Saturday’s primary.
David Rohde, Ernestine Friedl professor of political science, said Gingrich’s win in South Carolina could give the candidate some momentum moving forward in the primary season.
“Not only did he win, but he also did surprisingly well,” Rohde said. “He is going to get a lot of media attention in a positive light that he might not have gotten otherwise. How much a benefit that is will depend how much impact this will have on the Florida primary a week from Tuesday.”
Since 1980, South Carolina has successfully forecasted chosen the candidate who has gone on to win the Republican presidential nomination. The state’s historical influence on the Republican party’s eventual choice for the presidential race combined with its early timing in the primary season puts added pressure on candidates to win the state.
Although the Palmetto state has continually served as a good reflection of the country’s Republican base, said Pope McCorkle, visiting lecturer at the Sanford School of Public Policy, said that Romney still has a number of advantages that could buck South Carolina’s predictive streak.
“History—it rhymes, but I don’t know if it repeats itself,” McCorkle said. “South Carolina has been more reflective of what is going on in the party and has generally been a bellwether state, but Romney has not been knocked out. Even if it ends up being Gingrich, there will be more battles.”
Romney’s best strategy moving forward would be to question Gingrich’s presidential electability as ultimately Republicans want a candidate who can beat Obama, he added. Romney will aim to seal the nomination before Florida’s primary Jan. 31.
Kyle Scott, visiting assistant professor of political science, said that Gingrich’s strength has been his ability to talk openly about his flaws as a candidate and to comment on them before his competitors. If Romney had adopted the same strategy, he might have seen success in South Carolina, he added.
“Romney’s fatal flaw has been his inability to connect to voters and to foreshadow attacks on his record, particularly his tax returns,” Scott said. “His campaign did not anticipate that his tax returns would be requested. His father started that tradition [in 1968] of getting tax returns out in the open when he was governor of Michigan.”
Representatives of Mitt Romney for Durham County could not be reached for comment.
McCorkle said that the longer this year’s primary season runs, the higher likelihood that there could be long-term damage to the Republican party. As the Republican candidates continue to attack each other as they vie for the opportunity to take on Obama, the candidates may alienate some Republican voters by the time a final nominee is chosen. The chance of damage to the party only intensifies when candidates with extensive political histories are running, he added.
Junior Chloe Rockow, chair of the Duke College Republicans, said she could see a longer primary season being detrimental to the party come the presidential election. Commenting on the large difference being presented by socially conservative members in the party and fiscally conservative members, Rockow said the party should present a more focused platform to the American public.
“It is getting to be that time where we need to get our stuff together and present a united front as a party,” Rockow said. “That being said, I am glad we have our options running and seeing candidates standing up for what they believe in.”
Looking toward Florida’s republican primary, McCorkle said it is important to note that Florida hosts a closed primary election and in order to vote, voters must be a registered member of the Republican party. This could stand to hurt Romney as independents, who will be shut out of voting in Florida, are more likely to vote for a moderate candidate such as Romney over more conservative candidates like Gingrich.
“Florida is a such a big state,” he said. “If Romney comes back and wins Florida he could be put back on course after being put off by losing South Carolina and Iowa.”
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