Five Lessons From South Carolina

COLUMBIA, S.C. – Before I head to Tampa, I can empty the notebook labeled “South Carolina WTF.” Yes, debates mattered; Newt appealed to a whole casserole of resentments by smacking around Juan Williams; Mitt Romney’s jaw is made of pure Waterford crystal. What else do we know?

Yes, you can hate the “elites” while shopping at Tiffany’s. If I could point the Ultimate Nullifier at any anti-Gingrich talking point, it would be this one: “How can he mock the elites, when he’s a former Speaker who shovels money into a house in McLean?” The answer: Because anyone can mock the elites. Any Republican could listen to (and read) Glenn Beck, or listen to Rush Limbaugh, and understand that the conservative voter now believes that Barack Obama is purposely making Americans poorer so he can make them dependent on the Leviathan state. Gingrich says this. He wins. It’s not complicated.

Populism works … After the New Hampshire vote came in, after Romney won easily, I noticed a pool of voters who refused to join in: Poor people. Newt Gingrich was attacking Mitt Romney’s biography, telling voters (aided by his Super PAC), that Bain Capital was a horrifying vulture fund; groups like the Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity labelled him an anti-capitalist. But South Carolina Republicans agreed with Gingrich. He won voters who make less than $50,000 by 15 points, 40-25 over Romney. (Ron Paul, who won this vote in New Hampshire, did better with these voters than he did overall in South Carolina.) The only economic strata that broke for Romney: The voters who make more than $200,000.

… but it’s a certain kind of populism! Rick Santorum is the lone “compassionate conservative” in the race, the only one who talks about protectionist trade, rebuilding manufacturing, and income inequality. (Yes, yes – as Yglesias points out, his tax plan is still regressive. But we’re grading on a curve.) He utterly failed to convince conservatives that he – a happily married father of seven with a serious record of wins in Congress – was the right anti-Romney. It’s not a fair fight, and I’m sure Santorum could win over most Gingrich voters in a lab experiment, but you have to consider why Santorum’s specific brand of populism falters as Gingrich’s big-picture, Glenn Beck-ian anger thrives. Gingrich and Ron Paul are the most apocalyptic candidates, insistent that America is run by socialists who risk destroying everything. Santorum won’t go that far. At a Chamber of Commerce event I wrote about this week, Santorum was the only one of three candidates (Gingrich and Perry were the others) who argued that the National Labor Relations Board might be fixed, not defunded and destroyed. Not good enough!

Stephen Colbert started a joke, which started 1 percent of the world laughing. Five of the candidates on South Carolina’s ballot had suspended their campaigns before the vote; Herman Cain was the first to do so. And yet he got 6,324 votes, more than all the other drop-outs put together. Stephen Colbert’s Super PAC “campaign” for Cain inspired real, carbon-based humans to come out and vote for Cain as a joke. (BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray actually met some of these people.) In Charleston, where Colbert and Cain held a pre-vote rally, Cain actually came in at 2.3 percent, better than twice as good as he did statewide.

Endorsements still matter. It doesn’t look like it, right? Last weekend, Rick Santorum won the endorsement of an Evangelical super-group in Texas, and he announced new ones all week – including one from James Dobson. Mitt Romney won the endorsement of the state’s biggest newspaper and Gov. Nikki Haley. Rick Perry had locked up endorsements from some of the smartest local pols, like Rep. Mick Mulvaney. All of these guys lost. But who did Newt Gingrich bring on? He concentrated on local endorsements; he got quiet but noticeable endorsements from Todd, then Sarah Palin; he absorbed Perry’s support, and some of Huntsman’s. Yes, a lot of this came late, but if the Feiler Faster Thesis is being borne out by elections, it’s borne out by every aspect of those elections.