SiNCE it was first held 32 years ago, the South Carolina Republican primary has been won by the party’s most electable candidate, the one backed by the Republican establishment and invariably the winner of the nomination. On Saturday, the state veered in an extreme direction, and the outcome spoke poorly for a party that allowed itself to be manipulated by the lowest form of campaigning.
Newt Gingrich won the primary by a decisive margin of 12.5 percentage points, and there is no mystery about how he did it. Twothirds of voters interviewed in exit polls said they made their decision on the basis of the two South Carolina debates, where Mr Gingrich exploited racial resentment and hatred of the news media to connect with furious voters.
South Carolina has moved sharply rightward since Obama arrived on the national scene. In 2000, 24 percent of state voters said they were ‘very conservative,’ but that number jumped to 34 percent in 2008. Now it is up to 37 percent, according to exit polls. Two-thirds of Saturday’s voters said they supported the Tea Party, reflecting the election in 2010 of four South Carolina freshmen who are among the most extreme members of the House.In one of the most telling results of the exit polls, most voters said that cutting the federal budget was more important than encouraging job growth.
At a time when more than 13 million people remain unemployed, these voters do not want the government to do a thing about it, possibly because it might improve Obama’s re-election chances.Romney’s foam-rubber ideology was not built for an electorate this rigid.
Santorum’s profound social conservatism might normally have played well, particularly because two-thirds of primary voters said they were evangelical or born-again Christians, but he appealed only to Republican minds, not hearts.It was Mr Gingrich who pulled the race into the gutter, where he found considerable support. He repeatedly called Mr Obama ‘the greatest food-stamp president in American history,’ and lectured a black questioner at Monday’s debate about the amount of federal handouts to blacks, suggesting their work ethic was questionable.On Thursday, in the derisive tones of a radio talk-show host, he said Mr Obama’s cabinet looked like Mickey Mouse and Goofy. That was just what South Carolina voters wanted to hear, the signal that he would not only challenge Mr Obama but work to bloody him, to destroy his dignity. As one voter told a reporter, “I think we’ve reached a point where we need someone who’s mean.”