the numbers guy

A week is a long time in South Carolina…

Posted on: January 21, 2012

While doing my best to sift through the South Carolina runes a week ago, I noted that I would be watching the polls closely to see whether Newt Gingrich could consolidate conservative support, and emerge as the clear conservative standard-bearer by winning over supporters of Rick Santorum and Rick Perry.

Over the past few days, a slew of opinion poll evidence has answered that question decisively in the affirmative. Here’s the unanimous verdict of the final polls taken before the voting starts:

All of the most recent polls agree that Mr Gingrich is now in pole position to win the primary. You have to go back to the Politico/Tarrance poll taken Tuesday and Wednesday to find the last poll which placed Mitt Romney in the lead.

What on earth happened? When even the NY Times’ Nate Silver describes himself as “surprised a great deal”, you know it must have been quite some week in politics.

Well, for starters, Mr Gingrich was at least partly the author of his own success, after pulling off a pair of very strong performances in the week’s two debates. Mr Romney, by contrast, had moments at each debate which his campaign will almost certainly prefer to forget.

In particular, seasoned observers were left scratching their heads when Mr Romney, who badly fumbled a question on publishing his tax returns on Monday evening, was left by his advisers without an effective answer to the same question when it predictably came up again at Thursday’s CNN debate.

Mr Romney’s team ended up spending much of the week battling a negative media narrative about his wealth and effective tax rate. Mr Gingrich, by contrast, was helped by the impact of Rick Perry’s endorsement. Polls taken since Mr Perry dropped out of the race show a modest but clearly identifiable boost for Mr Gingrich.

The same cannot be said for the short-term impact of former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman’s endorsement of Mr Romney. That said, the lack of a challenge from his left should deliver strategic benefits for Mr Romney’s campaign over the long run, freeing up the option of resorting to a rightward shift if that’s what’s needed to tackle Mr Gingrich in Florida and beyond.

Finally, with the first early-morning voters starting to cast their ballots as I write, Mr Gingrich seems to have all the late momentum. The final day of the Public Policy Polling survey (PDF) shows Mr Gingrich leading Mr Romney by a whopping 9 points. The same poll shows Mr Gingrich leading 41-21 among Evangelicals, 52-18 among Tea Partiers and, crucially, ahead of Rick Santorum 44-21 among ‘very conservative’ voters.

PPP also provided the NY Times with a detailed breakdown of their night-by-night results which show that, over the three days of polling, Mr Gingrich led Mr Romney by 4 points on Wednesday evening, 6 points on Thursday and by 14 points in interviews conducted Friday.

With such a preponderance of polling evidence, not to mention a strong gut feeling I’ve had since watching Monday’s debate, I feel confident in saying that former Speaker Gingrich will be heading to Florida with a victory tonight under his belt. His margin of victory remains to be seen, although I don’t expect viewers to be burning the midnight oil before they know the winner.

What also remains to be seen is the impact a success for Mr Gingrich will have on the race as a whole. Florida, with it’s large population of migrants from northern states, is kinder territory for Mr Romney’s more moderate brand of conservatism. Post-Iowa, Mr Romney surged into a solid lead in Florida, where some recent polls have him up by as much as 26 points.

Those numbers could well be misleading. Mr Gingrich, should he pull off a solid victory in SC tonight, has a lot of upside potential in Florida. He led there until Iowa, and voters who switched from Mr Gingrich to Mr Romney after Iowa may feel tempted to switch back after tonight.

A solid margin of victory for Mr Gingrich over Mr Santorum tonight will also help reinforce his increasingly convincing assertion that he is now the only conservative capable of stopping Mr Romney. The first polls out of Florida after tonight’s result may tell a very interesting story indeed.

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