Since it was incorporated into the presidential primary calendar in 1980, South Carolina has been an important tool for the Republican establishment.
Coming after nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, the reliably conservative Southern state has served as a check on those states' sometimes-eclectic tendencies, making sure an "establishment" candidate gets a chance to gain momentum. Indeed, since 1980, it has picked every eventual Republican nominee.
This year, however, South Carolina could do the exact opposite, upending the momentum of the "electable" candidate (Mitt Romney) and resuscitating the campaign of a man few in the GOP establishment want (Newt Gingrich). It would be a reversal potentially with significant meaning for the almost-forgotten tea party.
Barely more than a year after it changed the face of Washington in historic midterm elections, the tea party has yet to leave any clear mark on the GOP nominating process. Iowa and New Hampshire have given momentum to Mr. Romney, whose perceived ideological squishiness is anathema to the tea party insurgency. The Jan. 31 primary in Florida could virtually seal his nomination.
But standing in his way is South Carolina, a tea party heartland where four of five congressmen, as well as the governor, are tea party supporters. As a result, South Carolina is emerging as a litmus test for the movement: If the tea party can't flex its political muscle here, then where can it?
“South Carolina has become the only possible firewall for the conservative base that hopes to stop the front-runner,” writes Matt Bai in a New York Times Magazine article. “If the discontented activists who stormed the party in 2010 can’t find a way to take out the establishment’s chosen nominee here, of all places, then they might as well slap those Romney/Rubio bumper stickers on their S.U.V.’s now and get it over with.”
A Romney win would be read read as a sign that the tea party is now a spent political force, or – perhaps even worse, to some tea partyers – has abandoned its principles to back an "electable" candidate. If a surging Mr. Gingrich, who has coveted the tea party mantle, manages to win, though, it could suggest that the movement retains some of its antiestablishment mojo.
To be sure, Romney's inability to pull away from the field despite overwhelming establishment support might be one sign of how the tea party ethos has infused the GOP primary season, both in South Carolina and elsewhere. But the movement's inability so far to coalesce around any alternative has made Romney's path to the nomination easier, raising questions about whether the tea party has lost its influence.
“It is almost impossible to believe and downright sickening to accept that in light of the clear mandate of the tea party that the GOP stands on the cusp of returning to ‘establishmentarianism,’ ” writes conservative columnist Kevin McCullough in an opinion piece for Fox News. “But it appears that for all the big talk, tens of thousands of local rallies, and the single largest non-inaugural event to ever occur on our nation’s mall, the tea party has died. Which is sad.”
For those seeking to stop a Romney nomination, however, South Carolina is an ideal stop for the campaign. Public Policy Polling's Thursday survey of likely Republican voters in the South Carolina primary found Gingrich had a 6 percentage point lead on Romney, 35-29. One reason: Tea party voters favored him, 46-21 percent.
In South Carolina, the tea party vote matters. A recent Winthrop poll found that 61 percent of South Carolinians approved of the tea party, compared with 20 percent of Americans nationwide.
“The polling that we do in states all over the country tells us that in Southern states most people who say they are Republicans basically embrace the same general philosophy as the tea party,” says Matt Towery, CEO of the Atlanta-based polling firm InsiderAdvantage.
The question is whether voters on the tea party fringe – those who, Mr. Towery says, simply have a "tea party state of mind" – will be willing to back Romney because he is seen as having a better chance of defeating Mr. Obama in November.
“My overall impression has been that the tea party itself, in terms of an actual organized movement, is not that big," says Towery. "So the idea that a tea party group is going to tell most South Carolinians how to vote, that's been overblown by the national media.”
It raises the prospect of a tea party that behaves differently in local, state, and even congressional elections – where national "electability" is irrelevant – versus presidential elections. Tea party organizers across the country say they continue to revamp local GOP party structures in their image, laying groundwork for what they see as the more important goal of taking over state legislatures and boosting their role in Congress.
But a compromise with the party establishment on Romney could water down the intensity of the pugnacious grass-roots movement.
“In 2010, the Tea Party appeared to help Republican candidates, as best as we can tell with the available data,” writes political scientist John Sides on The Monkey Cage blog. “But it’s a much more open question whether the Tea Party’s energy and enthusiasm can be mustered for 2012, especially if Romney is the nominee.”
Already, some political analysts see signs of the tea party moderating its insurgent ways. In South Carolina, many local leaders have been courted by candidates like Gingrich and have risen as power brokers in their own right, with all the attendant problems – including the need for compromise – that participation brings, says Jeffrey Peake, a political scientist at Clemson University.
“The interesting and really odd thing here is that, yes, the tea party is frustrated with a Republican party it sees as talking out of both sides of its mouth,” says Professor Peake. But at the same time, activists have come to realize that “you cannot be this ideological and still govern effectively.”
In the end, the rise of the “tea party state of mind” alone – which has made this primary season such a rough ride for Romney – may ultimately prove the most powerful contribution to the nation's political direction, activists say.
Then again, with Gingrich showing signs of a come-from-behind victory in South Carolina Saturday, the tea party might yet gate crash the GOP's hoped-for coronation.