Courtesy of CSPAN
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Newt Gingrich scored a huge upset here tonight, upending the rollercoaster Republican primary and dealing a decisive blow to Mitt Romney’s presumptive inevitability as the GOP frontrunner.It was a decisive victory, with Gingrich taking 40% of the vote, followed by Romney with 26% — a remarkable turnaround for the former House Speaker, whose rollercoaster campaign looked like it was on the verge of collapse (again) after disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire.
The surprising South Carolina results effectively set up an interparty battle between the GOP Establishment and the party’s grassroots conservative base. CNN exit polls show Gingrich beat Romney in virtually every demographic here (except the very educated and the very rich), but he did particularly well among evangelicals, Tea Party supporters, and those who identify as conservatives.
The question now is whether Gingrich can continue to deliver those votes as the campaign moves into Florida and beyond. The former House Speaker has seen a huge fundraising boost in the past week, and has been building up its grassroots organisation in Florida and Nevada, which host the next two nominating contests. But will it be enough to go up against the Mitt Romney Machine? And can Gingrich hold his campaign together long enough to keep his momentum going?
Here are three possible scenarios for what could happen next:
Gingrich flames out in Florida: The populous state and its expensive media markets are the first real financial test for presidential campaigns, and it is not clear that Gingrich can compete. Florida voters head to the polls on January 31, which gives Gingrich almost two weeks to build up strong fundraising and organizational momentum — and just enough time to completely implode.
More importantly, don’t underestimate how badly Mitt Romney wants this. The Romney camp is going to go all out for the next 10 days. Campaign staffers have said that they plan on making Gingrich’s character the main issue, so expect to see a flood of negative ad buys, mailings, and robocalls hitting Gingrich for his personal betrayals, inconsistency, and chaotic leadership of the House. Given how vitriolic the air wars got in South Carolina last week, Florida could get pretty dirty.
If the Florida primary is a Romney blowout, it will almost certainly be the end for Gingrich. Romney will have regained his air of inevitability, leaving the former House Speaker to stagger along until his final collapse.
Gingrich sticks it out in Florida — but can’t carry Newtmentum to Super Tuesday: The good news for Gingrich is that expectations are low in Florida — all he has to do is eke out a decent second place finish (and knock Santorum out of the running). Moreover, the state is a Tea Party stronghold and a hotbed for religious conservatives, which could work to Gingrich’s advantage. The campaign has been quietly building a strong grassroots organisation there, led by former Marco Rubio campaign manager Jose Mallea, and those efforts will likely mushroom in the wake of the South Carolina win.
After Florida, however, the race gets a lot tougher. Between the state’s Republican primary and Super Tuesday, five states — Nevada, Maine, Colorado, Minnesota, and Washington — will hold caucuses, and three — Missouri, Arizona, and Michigan — will vote in primaries. Both Ron Paul and Mitt Romney have built up strong organisations in the caucus states, and Romney has a huge advantage in the primary states. Gingrich isn’t even on the ballot in Missouri.
If Romney and Paul keep up their sustained attacks against Gingrich and wrap up the No. 1 and No. 2 spots in the February contests, Newt will have a hard time convincing people that he is still a viable contender by the time Super Tuesday rolls around.
Gingrich makes it to Super Tuesday: A strong Gingrich finish in Florida could be enough to pull him through to March 6, particularly if he can raise some substantial cash. Delegates are rewarded proportionally until April, so he just has to remain competitive in at least some of the February nominating contests. Sources close to the campaign told Business Insider that they have already started expanding their field operations in some of those states, including Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado.
In the event that Gingrich picks up enough delegates — and momentum — to remain viable until Super Tuesday, then we have a real race.