If you were a campaign strategist for Newt Gingrich, you could not have wished for a better outcome than what occurred in the recent South Carolina primary. Weeks before the election, Mitt Romney seemed like he had a virtual lock on the GOP nomination, consistently leading Gingrich and others in preliminary polling. In addition to having sizeable advantages in funding and organization, the Romney team also captured the early endorsement of Gov. Nikki Haley.
But somehow, in the days before the election, Gingrich vaulted past Romney and actually bested his opponent by 12 percentage points on Primary Day. One might be excused for wondering what the Romney campaign did that was so wrong that led to this demoralizing loss — or what the Gingrich campaign did that was so right.
While much has been made of Gingrich’s aggressive debate performances as the reason for his success in South Carolina, I would like to offer another hypothesis: What if Team Gingrich correctly guessed that there would be no better way to handicap his rival than to have him endorsed by one of the least popular Republicans in the state and then have her shadow him at every prominent campaign event before the primary, all the while Newt scoops up the endorsements of more influential state leaders?
It may be far-fetched to suggest that Haley was a double agent secretly working for Newt, but if the results were planned, they could not have worked any better. Not only did the primary campaign reveal a great deal about the presidential contenders, it also revealed much about the style and judgment of several prominent state Republicans.
First, credit must be given to U.S. Rep. Tim Scott and Sen. Jim DeMint, who maintained their posts as Republican kingmakers by remaining impartial throughout the primary. Though courted by nearly all of the candidates, their choice to not endorse any particular one allowed them to stay relevant throughout the South Carolina primaries and beyond. GQ magazine even named Scott as one of the 50 most influential politicians in Washington, a noteworthy commendation given the fact he is a freshman legislator.
Kudos should go to S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell and former Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer for picking a winner. Not only did they bet early on Gingrich and win, but they were front and center during Gingrich’s victory speech on all the major networks. If Gingrich is fortunate enough to prevail in November’s general election, there is no doubt that he will remember the South Carolina Republican leaders who supported him during his first primary victory.
We also learned a lot about Gov. Haley’s style and substance during this primary. There she was shadowing Gov. Romney at every turn before his shocking loss, particularly those for which there was national television coverage. After Romney’s defeat, the governor was suspiciously absent from the stage during his concession speech. Given the chance to show her loyalty to a candidate who sought her support, she jumped ship quicker than a Costa Concordia captain, having arguably left a commensurate amount of damage. Perhaps it is far-fetched to blame Romney’s loss on Haley, but how else can you explain that Gov. Haley’s endorsement did not even win Romney the governor’s home county of Lexington?
Even if Nikki Haley was not directly to blame for Mitt Romney’s loss, her endorsement obviously did little to help him. If having Haley on the Romney team was a Gingrich plan, it was a damn good one.
Dwayne Green is a local attorney who has served on various state and municipal boards. He graduated from Princeton University with a degree in politics and received his law degree from the University of Iowa.