Can Mitt Romney recover from his South Carolina 'disaster'?

Newt Gingrich defied conventional political wisdom in coming back to win solidly in South Carolina. Can he do the same in Florida, and what must Mitt Romney do to recover from Saturday's drubbing?

Charles Dharapak/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, stands with his wife Ann as he speaks at his South Carolina primary election night reception in Columbia, S.C., Saturday night. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich won the Republican primary.

Was Newt Gingrich’s very solid victory in South Carolina Saturday night a fluke – as the Republican establishment fervently hopes?

Or was it a clear sign that all bets are off in the GOP nomination race – a time when the mix of social, economic, and political forces in the United States have combined to create a new landscape for electoral politics?

Just three contests into the primary/caucus season, the question may be unanswerable, the kind of thing that keeps pundits and political scientists gainfully employed. But the results are stark.

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“South Carolina has proven to be a disaster for Mitt Romney,” write Larry Sabato and Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics in their morning-after analysis.

“The size of his defeat by Newt Gingrich – a 12%+ landslide in a four-way race – is virtually a repudiation of his candidacy in a state that has prided itself on picking the eventual nominee for 32 years,” they write. “And we suspect Romney will have several more nights of heartburn, much like this one, as the nomination process unfolds.”

In the Palmetto State, Romney’s slide from presumptive front-runner was swift. Three days earlier, he’d had a clear lead in the polls. But back-to-back debates in South Carolina clearly showed Romney’s weakness and Gingrich’s strength in such crucial venues. Romney waffled on his wealth and income taxes; Gingrich dined on red meat when he took after the media over his marital infidelities.

Gingrich did well across the board in South Carolina, according to exit polls gathered by CNN: By gender (51 percent of men and 49 percent of women voted for him), age, education and income level, religion, ideology (Romney barely won among self-described moderates).

Most tea party supporters went for Gingrich. Importantly, so did most of those for whom the ability to defeat Barack Obama was the key to winning their vote – “electability,” which was supposed to be Romney’s strong point.

If Romney doesn’t want to be discouraged by the Sunday morning analysis of his defeat, he’d better stick to the funny papers.

Writing at Real Clear Politics, Sean Trende says there are three takeaways from South Carolina: “There is no good news buried in here for Mitt Romney…. This is worse than George W. Bush’s loss to John McCain in New Hampshire…. Analysts are kidding themselves if they say Romney is the inevitable nominee.”

South Carolina was always going to be tough for Romney. In 2008, he came in just fourth there.

Now, Romney seems to be heading to “more favorable ground,” as Sabato and Kondik put it.

According to 2008 exit polls from Florida, Nevada, Arizona, and Michigan – important upcoming contests – the number of evangelical Christians and those who describe themselves as “very conservative” is smaller there than it was this year in Iowa and South Carolina.

Although Gingrich’s South Carolina win no doubt will generate more financial support for his campaign, Romney at this point has more resources to get his message across in Florida (including expected attacks on Gingrich), which is a much larger state than the candidates have fought in so far.

As of Sunday, Romney was leading Gingrich by 18.5 percentage points (40.5-22.0) in Florida, according to the Real Clear Politics average of polling data. In national tracking data, he’s ahead of Gingrich by 8.2 points. But as this past week's experience shows, that can swiftly change. The extent to which Gingrich's momentum continues will be key.

Though the South Carolina results for Rick Santorum and Ron Paul were less than spectacular (17 percent and 13 percent respectively), both vow to stay in the race for now. That works to Romney’s advantage, avoiding the two-man race that at this point would seem to benefit Gingrich.

Still, all eyes are focused on the two men at the head of a dwindling pack – especially as they prepare to do rhetorical battle in critical debates in Florida this coming week.

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