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.
Gingrich also plays to the fears old white people may harbor of a changing America. His proportionof the vote went straight up with the age of the electorate. He won 27 percent of voters under age 30, 37 percent of voters who are 30-44, 40 percent of voters 45-64, and 47 percent of voters 65 and older. That’s who Gingrich is playing to when he says the election is a choice between whether we will "remain historical America," or become "a brand new European-style secular socialist state."
Economic populism. Professional conservatives who actually believe in free market capitalism clucked their tongues at Gingrich’s attacks on Romney for having presided over some layoffs at Bain Capital. They even predicted it would backfire among Republican voters. But it didn’t. That’s because Republicans don’t actually favor free market capitalism or small government.
Gingrich’s theme of making people work instead of living the easy life of getting by on food stamps and welfare appeals to Republicans because it is fundamentally a cultural appeal. It’s about attacking the values of some indolent pack of others, be they minorities, young people, immigrants, hippies or city-dwellers. That’s why middle-class and working-class whites—who do not benefit from Republican economic policies—vote for them.
The people who actually favor free market economics out of principle or self-interest—the rich and political professionals—mostly supported Romney in South Carolina. But they are relatively small in number.
Gingrich knows this, which is why he stuck to his ideologically inconsistent criticism of Romney. And he pandered to the hypocrisy of the Republican base on economic policy. Gingrich constantly promised in campaign speeches and the debates that he would use federal money to build an Interstate highway connection from Myrtle Beach to I-95 and deepen the port in Charleston. Those might be good ideas, but it’s precisely the kind of buying votes with other people’s money that Republicans accuse Democrats of doing.
Religion. Gingrich won 42 percent of born again and evangelical Christians. The reason? His overt appeals to religiosity. A typical Gingrich stump speech in South Carolina was blatantly more religious than in New Hampshire a week earlier. Until South Carolina, Gingrich employed a brief line about the Declaration of the Independence saying the people "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” with a slight verbal emphasis on “Creator.” Here, he drew it out into an explicitly theological and arguably anti-atheist digression. “Every one of us is sovereign because God has given us our rights,” said Gingrich on Friday night. “Barack Obama believes in Saul Alinsky and European socialism where the state is sovereign and you’re merely the subject.”
Later he went on a digression about Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address and the prominent role God plays in it. “I would ask our secular friends how you can you teach Lincoln’s second inaugural without God?” He demanded, attacking a straw man.
Gingrich also used religion as a shield against the late-breaking story that his second wife, Marianne, said he asked for an open marriage. Gingrich’s daughters defended him by saying he had since grown closer to God. Evangelicals love nothing so much as a story of a redeemed sinner. Just ask George W. Bush. Poor Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum have stayed faithful to their wives and have no such tale to tell.
Race. Have you ever heard of “the War between the States”? That’s the Civil War, but under a different title, more popular in the South, where it emphasizes states’ rights. And that’s also the name Gingrich used to refer to the Civil War Monday night. Do you think that’s what he’ll call it when he is back up North?
Gingrich’s winking approval of racial resentment was undoubtedly part of his appeal in South Carolina, albeit on a more subterranean level.
In Monday night’s debate Gingrich’s bombastic response to being asked by African-American moderator Juan Williams whether he understands why some might be offended by his assertion that black parents should demand jobs instead of food stamps for their children went over extremely well with South Carolina Republicans. It was a twofer for Gingrich: he got to condescend to blacks and journalists at once.
Gingrich’s debate performances were absolutely essential to his victory. In every speech Gingrich promises to challenge President Obama to seven debates in the general election, winning laughs for his stupid joke that he will let Obama use a teleprompter. Voters cited Gingrich’s “intellect” as making him electable, and Gingrich’s endorsers such as McFarlane would say they want Gingrich facing off against Obama in the debates. Among the most remarkable exit poll results was that Gingrich beat Romney 48 percent to 39 percent among voters who said electability was their top priority. Of course, Gingrich’s polarizing persona, embarrassing history of personal and professional immorality and unethical behavior and high negative ratings all make him less electable than Romney. But Gingrich managed to persuade voters of the laughable notion that he is so brilliant he will wipe the floor with Obama in debates.
The notion that Obama, who edited the Harvard Law Review and taught at the University of Chicago Law School, is not very smart himself is widespread on the right. Given how obviously false it is, it can only be explained as a combination of willfully ignorant partisanship and racism. On this front, as on so many others, Gingrich successfully capitalized on partisanship and bigotry.