The big political news today coming out of South Carolina is the decision of Jon Huntsman to withdraw from the Republican presidential race and endorse Mitt Romney. In doing so, Huntsman is acknowledging the failure of his campaign to catch fire and doing the honorable thing by backing the Republican who has the best chance of winning in November. But by getting on the Romney bandwagon, he’s following the same path that has seen a considerable portion of undecided South Carolinians who are now supporting the frontrunner.
Yesterday’s Insider Advantage/Majority Opinion Research poll conducted for Newsmax revealed a major swing to Romney when compared to the survey the same group had taken just four days earlier. While the numbers of all the other candidates remained relatively stable in the last week, Romney gained nine percentage points, going from 23 to 32 percent. That stretched his lead over Newt Gingrich to a comfortable 11 points with only five days to go before the Palmetto state votes. But just as important as the raw numbers is where Romney picked up support. In the last four days, IA/MOR poll found that those expressing “no opinion” went down from 15 to 7 percent. You don’t need a PhD in statistics to figure out that most of those undecideds are now in the Romney column.
We can draw two conclusions from this decisive swing to Romney.
First is the avalanche of negative advertising directed at Romney, principally by Newt Gingrich’s super PACs, not only failed to dent the former Massachusetts governor’s reputation, but had the opposite effect. The attempt to brand Romney a predatory capitalist was seen by most conservatives as absurd and South Carolinians appear to agree. We shall, no doubt, hear a lot more about Romney’s career at Bain Capital from Democrats who can be counted on to demagogue the issue relentlessly in the fall campaign. But the decision by Gingrich and Rick Perry to attack Romney from the left while claiming to be the true conservatives in the race was a major blunder.
The second point to be gleaned from this poll is that the effort by some evangelical leaders to try to settle on Rick Santorum as the conservative alternative to Romney doesn’t seem to be having much affect on South Carolina voters. The previous survey taken last Wednesday had Santorum trailing Gingrich by eight points. On Sunday, the margin remained stable with the only difference being that Ron Paul had gained a percentage point edging Santorum out of third place. Unless Santorum can do something to galvanize his campaign in the next few days, he will find himself finishing a distant third or fourth in South Carolina. That would mean the effective end of his hopes, because if Santorum can’t do well in a state where his core constituency of social conservatives are so strong, then there’s no reason to believe he’ll do better anywhere else.
Another victory in South Carolina after his Iowa and New Hampshire triumphs will give Romney an overwhelming lead in the GOP race. However, this will also provide Gingrich the opportunity he has been counting on. If Santorum can’t overtake the former speaker in South Carolina, he may pull out along with Perry who was trailing even the now withdrawn Huntsman. That would leave Gingrich as the last “non-Romney” Republican left in the race, a position all of the also-rans have been hoping would propel them to eventual victory. But the last month has been a series of unmitigated disasters for Gingrich, culminating in his Occupy Wall Street-style bashing of Romney’s business experience. Under these circumstances, it’s hard to imagine a damaged Gingrich overcoming Romney’s momentum.