State Of The GOP Primary Race: Pre-South Carolina Analysis

One day out from the primary, South Carolina is a two man race beween Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. The latest Rasmussen Reports poll has Gingrich up by 2, the latest Insider Advantage poll has Newt up by 3, and PPP, on its first of three nights of polling on 1/18, had Newt up by 6.

However, all of that data doesn’t reflect the rocket ride that was 1/19/2011. Yesterday, Rick Perry dropped out and endorsed Newt, Newt won a debate, it turned out that Santorum beat Mitt Romney in Iowa, and Marianne Ginther’s much-hyped but ultimately underwhelming interview where she kvetched about being married to Newt ran on Nightline. Combine all of that with the fact that Mitt was ahead and Newt now seems to have the momentum while Mitt probably has a better ground game — and it’s hard to say exactly what’s going to happen on Saturday.

If Newt wins, it’s a whole new ballgame because Romney’s veil of inevitability will have been torn away, Newt will have major league momentum, cash will start pouring into his coffers again, and the race will be practically guaranteed to continue until Super Tuesday barring some unforseen disaster for one of the candidates.

On the other hand, if Mitt wins, what happens next won’t be quite so clear-cut despite Newt’s hints that he’ll get out of the race if he doesn’t win South Carolina. If you want to understand how that can be, keep in mind that in the latest national Rasmussen poll, Mitt has 30% of the vote while Gingrich, Santorum, Paul, and Perry are pulling 59% combined.

Despite the fact that he won Iowa, Santorum doesn’t have much money, he doesn’t have much of an organization, and judging by the latest polls numbers, he’s probably sitting in third place in Florida (and nationally) without much of a chance to make up the gap. That means Santorum has no path to victory and so, it’s entirely possible that after he loses South Carolina, he may drop out of the race. If that happens, barring an endorsement of Mitt, most of his support would probably go to Gingrich. Moreover, if people felt like they had a real choice between Newt and Mitt, you’d probably see some of Ron Paul’s less fervent support (probably anything over 10%) start to pull away towards Newt.

In other words, despite having a huge money advantage, an excellent organization, establishment support, and momentum on his side, Mitt STILL hasn’t been able to get over the hump and consolidate his support. Although victories in South Carolina and Florida could allow him to do that, it’s also entirely possible that if Santorum gets out, Newt could pick up enough support to surge past Mitt even with all of his advantages. That being said, the base would prefer to have the race over and if Mitt wins South Carolina AND Florida, although Newt definitely would still be in it mathmatically, you might see the base move towards Mitt just to get this primary season over with.

What it all comes down to is that there’s a lot riding not just on South Carolina, but on what Rick Santorum decides to do after he loses the state.

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