One of the pieces of conventional wisdom we’ve been hearing a lot of in the last few weeks is that a long, tough fight will be better for the eventual winner of the Republican presidential contest than one that is quickly decided. Since Newt Gingrich’s win in South Carolina tonight ensures that the nomination can’t be sewn up in short order, that theory is going to be tested in the coming weeks and months.
The proof for this thesis is supposedly the outcome of the 2008 Democratic primary battle in which an extended contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was seen as helping Obama in the long run.
CNN is touting exit polls that said South Carolina voters who cared about a candidate’s religious beliefs overwhelmingly rejected Mitt Romney. They are speculating that this might mean that evangelicals turned down the former Massachusetts governor because of his Mormon faith. Given the polls that have backed up the idea of the prevalence of such prejudice, this isn’t a completely unreasonable conclusion.
However, it must be pointed out that such voters are also most likely to dislike Romney for other reasons. Romney’s reputation as a flip-flopper on social issues is a much bigger problem for him among conservative Christians than Mormonism. We’ve heard much less talk about Romney’s faith this year than we did four years when this appeared to be a major issue, especially in South Carolina.
A few moments ago the networks declared Newt Gingrich the winner in South Carolina. A week ago, Romney looked to have the nomination sewn up. But even if the Gingrich surge doesn’t last — and I don’t believe it will — this will turn the GOP race into a long, bruising slog.
As it turns out, one bad week may have cost Mitt Romney an easy stroll to the nomination. Reportedly, the exit polls are showing that half of South Carolinians decided whom to support in the last days before today’s primary and half of them chose Newt Gingrich. That means two debates that were judged to be successes for Gingrich and the distracting issue of his tax returns might have transformed the primary from easy Romney win to a surprising Gingrich triumph.