In a reversal of what was widely projected by polls just a week ago, Newt Gingrich won a solid victory over Mitt Romney — 40 percent to 28 percent — in South Carolina’s Republican primary on Saturday.
How did he do it? In short, cultural populism. Gingrich won among voters in every income bracket below $200,000. Romney won the metropolitan counties surrounding Charleston and Columbia, while Gingrich carried the rest of the state. The class discrepancy was notable from Gingrich’s and Romney’s rallies. The former crowds included a few buzzcuts, camouflage and non-ironic moustaches. The latter’s were dominated by khaki pants and polo shirts.
Gingrich pursued this strategy along several different tracks:
Cultural reverse-snobbery. On Friday night Gingrich held his final campaign rally just outside Charleston on the USS Yorktown, an aircraft carrier that now serves as a military museum. Amid the retro warplanes Gingrich was introduced by Bud McFarlane, a former Naval officer who served in President Reagan’s National Security Council, and Major General James Livingston, a retired Congressional Medal of Honor winner. “Tomorrow we start taking our country back,” said Livingston, in a classic conservative formulation that lets the listener fill in which groups of foreign invaders they will take it back from.
Gingrich brought a troop of Boy Scouts onstage and joked, “This is probably not politically correct, but they’re practicing defeating the Japanese.”
At his victory celebration in Columbia on Saturday night Gingrich repeated these themes of nationalism and cultural resentment. He invoked "people who feel that the elites in Washington and New York… do not represent them at all."
"Tie them up!" Bellowed one man in the audience. Such violent rhetoric is increasingly common at Gingrich’s events. A mention of the media during his speech the night before incited a woman in the crowd to shout, "Off with their heads!"
On Saturday night Gingrich framed a general election contest between him and President Obama as "American exceptionalism versus the radicalism of Saul Alinsky." Only moments later he mentioned Alinsky again. "[Obama] draws his [ideas] from Saul Alinsky left wing radicals." That’s two mentions of a community organizer who died forty years ago in a Republican presidential primary victory speech. Given that often the majority of Gingrich’s audience probably knows little or nothing about the specifics of Alinsky’s ideas, this is just a shorthand way of turning Obama into a 1960’s radical through guilt by association.
Gingrich went on to raise the issue of "growing anti-religious bigotry of our elites." He turns even the most technical issues into proxy battles of the culture war. Of the Obama administration’s recent decisiont to reject construction of a proposed oil pipeline from Canada to Texas Gingrich claimed, "Obama is taking care of his extremist left wing environmentalist friends in San Francisco." San Francisco, of course, has nothing in particular to do with this. In fact, there were activists in states the pipeline would go through who effectively organized against it. But Gingrich doesn’t care. He just wants to set himself up in opposition to whatever "San Francisco" conjures in the imagination of his base.