Republican voters in South Carolina, a state that still celebrates treason by flying the Confederate flag at the state capitol and having Confederate Memorial Day as a state holiday, further besmirched their state’s reputation by voting for Newt Gingrich in last Saturday’s Republican Presidential primary. After weeks of the media treating Mitt Romney as a shoo-in for the GOP nomination, Gingrich surged in South Carolina in the past week and ended up winning by a 41% to 28% vote total, with Rick Santorum receiving 17% and Ron Paul receiving 13%. With this victory behind him, Newt is now looking to catch up to Romney in Florida, which is holding its primary on January 31.
Newt’s victory comes on the 15th anniversary of Gingrich becoming the first Speaker of the House in US history to be reprimanded by his own colleagues. The reprimand was the result of an ethics investigation stemming from the financing of a course that Newt taught at a local college, and Newt’s persistent misstatements to the investigators. The reprimand and accompanying $300,000 fine were approved by the House on a 395-28 vote, with 196 House Republicans voting in favor of reprimanding Newt. Now, South Carolina Republicans have decided they want this paragon of ethics to be their party’s standard bearer in 2012.
Exit polling from the election revealed a number of interesting facts. First, it shows the continuing political hypocrisy of so-called conservative Christians. In particular, 65% of the voters in yesterday’s primary considered themselves to be born-again or evangelical Christians. Those voters supported Gingrich over Romney by 44%-22%. Newt, of course, is a serial adulterer who divorced his first wife while she was undergoing cancer treatment to marry his younger mistress, then divorced her in order to once again marry a younger mistress. Despite his personal infidelities, Gingrich has the nerve to lecture others on personal morality, to attack the rights of LGBT Americans and women, and to pledge to advance a wide ranging conservative social agenda. Winning Progressive typically does not care about the personal lives of politicians because what matters is how they would conduct their public lives. But when a candidate’s public positions involve forcing others to adopt a particular version of personal morality that the candidate himself or herself does not follow, then it is entirely fair game to call out the hypocrisy. And hypocrisy is exactly what Gingrich represents, and what “family values” conservatives who supported him in South Carolina demonstrated.
Another interesting bit of data from the exit polling is with regards to the views of South Carolina Republican primary voters on the economy versus the deficit. Republicans voting in a primary in South Carolina can safely be expected to reflect some of the most conservative elements of the GOP. Yet when asked to identify the issue that matters most, 63% of them said the economy as compared to only 22% that said the deficit and 3% that said illegal immigration. Similarly, 43% identified creating jobs even if it increases the deficit as a higher priority than cutting the deficit even if it limits job growth. These numbers among conservatives in the South suggest a continuing high level of economic insecurity that needs to be addressed and could provide an opening for tamping down support for a GOP Presidential candidate who is more focused on deficits than on job creation.
A final interesting point from the exit polls is that the 45% of South Carolina GOP primary voters who identified the ability to defeat President Obama as the candidate quality that mattered the most voted for Newt Gingrich over Mitt Romney by 51%-37%. While we think that President Obama can beat either candidate in a general election, we’ll leave it up to our readers to decide whether it is reasonable to think that Newt has a better chance of winning the general election than Mitt does.