By Luke Brinker
As Ron Paul eclipses Newt Gingrich in Iowa and Mitt Romney begins to retake the momentum nationally in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, two new polls raise the question of whether Gingrich can bounce back with a win in the crucial South Carolina primary.
RealClearPolitics has Gingrich leading his rivals in the Palmetto State by an almost-18 point margin. Two polls released today, from Insider Advantage and Clemson University, have Gingrich enjoying leads over Romney of 12 and 17 percent, respectively. Given that the winner of the South Carolina primary has gone on to win the Republican nomination in every election since 1980, that’s not insignificant. (It’s not that there’s some special South Carolina magic bestowed upon primary victors; the state’s older, conservative, white, evangelical Republican electorate is simply a microcosm of the party’s national base.) But if, as is now expected, Gingrich loses in the Iowa caucuses and Romney maintains his impressive lead in New Hampshire, the former Speaker is unlikely to enjoy a South Carolina firewall.
The reason comes down to momentum. If Gingrich can’t score a win in Iowa after leading there for weeks, significant questions will ensue about his staying power as a right-wing alternative to Romney. If Gingrich heads into South Carolina looking like a loser, there’s little reason to expect him to win over key state conservatives like Sen. Jim DeMint. Tea Party darling Nikki Hayley, the state’s governor, is no longer even up for grabs; she endorsed Romney last week.
Finally, consider where the polling for the GOP race in South Carolina stood on December 19, 2007, per RealClearPolitics. Mike Huckabee (who actually turned his late-fall surge into an Iowa win) led his rivals by nearly 7 points. Romney, who wound up finishing fourth, was in second place. The eventual winner of the primary, John McCain, was mired in fifth place – with just a month to go before the primary.
I’m feeling better and better about never buying the dearly departed Gingrich boomlet.