Republican Race In South Carolina Tightens

Things are tightening up among the Republican candidates in the Palmetto State.

A series of polls released late this week have shown significant tightening in the South Carolina Republican primary, with Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul all seeming to rise together. First up, was a poll from American Research group that many found surprising:

Eight days before the South Carolina primary, a new poll shows Mitt Romney locked in statistical dead heat with Newt Gingrich in the Palmetto state.

The American Research Group (ARG) poll, conducted January 11-12, shows the former Massachusetts governor leading in South Carolina with 29 percent. The former House speaker comes in second with 25 percent support — within the poll’s 4-point margin of error.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul is polling in third at 20 percent in the ARG poll. Paul made the biggest gain’s since ARG’s last poll, which was conducted January 4-5. In that poll — conducted just after Paul’s third-place finish in Iowa but before his second-place finish in New Hampshire — the congressman had just 9 percent support.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry skipped campaigning in New Hampshire in order to focus on the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary, but he only places fourth in the latest ARG poll at 9 percent.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, meanwhile won only 7 percent support in this new poll — a huge drop from the 24 percent support he enjoyed in the ARG poll conducted after his strong second-place finish in Iowa. On Friday, Santorum zeroed in on Gingrich, making it clear he saw the former speaker as his biggest competitor in the race to be the “anti-Romney” candidate.

Ordinarily, I probably wouldn’t make much of an ARG poll. They’re polling methodology has been called into question by many observers, and their previous polling in Iowa and New Hampshire ended up being wildly off the mark. Nonetheless, it is consistent with the other polling that’s come out late this week in showing a tightening between Romney and Gingrich, although ARG seems to be alone in showing a huge drop off in support for Rick Santorum.

Shortly after the ARG poll was released, Insider Advantage came out with a poll showing Romney and Gingrich statistically tied:

The InsiderAdvantage poll of likely South Carolina Republican primary voters released Thursday shows Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich in a tight race to win the Palmetto state’s January 21st primary election.

Mr. Romney garnered 23 percent of the voters, while Mr. Gingrich trails him closely at 21 percent.

The poll also shows former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and Texas congressman Ron Paul in a close race for third. Mr. Santorum garnered 14 percent, while Mr. Paul finished with 13 percent of the votes.

The new poll was released after several days of attacks on the front running Mr. Romney from Mr. Gingrich and Texas Governor Rick Perry. On Wednesday, Winning Our Future, a Super PAC that supports Mr. Gingrich, released a 28 minute video called “When Mitt Romney Came to Town,” profiling the work he did with Bain Capital.

Mr. Perry called Mr. Romney a “vulture capitalist” during a campaign stop in Lexington, South Carolina on Wednesday. The Texas governor finished the InsiderAdvantage poll in last place, raking in 5 percent of the votes, two percentage points behind former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman.

According to Mr. Towery, Mr. Gingrich does better with male voters and Mr. Romney does better among female voters, likely a result of the former House speaker’s three marriages.

Finally, the latest Public Policy Polling Poll shows the same tightening between Gingrich and Romney, and a rather surprising bump for Ron Paul:

Mitt Romney continues to hold a modest lead in South Carolina’s Republican primary for President.  He’s at 29% to 24% for Newt Gingrich, 15% for Ron Paul, 14% for Rick Santorum, 6% for Rick Perry, 5% for Jon Huntsman, and 1% for Buddy Roemer.

Things haven’t changed too much at the top in the last week. Romney is down 1 point from his pre-New Hampshire standing, while Gingrich has gained a point.  There’s more movement in the middle. Paul has gained 6 points to move into 3rd place, while Santorum has dropped by 5 points. Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman have each picked up a single point and remain in 5th and 6th place respectively.

Why is Romney winning South Carolina? Voters there are overwhelmingly focused on the economy this year and that’s working to his advantage.  39% say jobs and the economy are their top issue, closely followed by 34% who pick government spending and reducing the debt.  Asked who they trust most on economic issues 35% pick Romney to 25% for Gingrich, 16% for Paul, and 10 for Santorum.  And despite the attacks on it this week Romney’s business background is an asset for him. 58% have a favorable opinion of his record in business to just 27% with a negative view of it.

Another reason Romney’s doing well and that Santorum’s doing poorly is that social issues just aren’t at the front of voters’ minds this year…and Romney’s neutralizing him on that front anyway. Just 4% of voters say that’s their top concern this year.  And when it comes to the candidate voters trust most on social issues Santorum only beats Romney 23-21 with Gingrich at 19% and Paul at 14%. Romney’s also basically running even with evangelicals, getting 27% to 28% for Gingrich and 17% for Santorum. It’s a pretty safe bet that he’s going to win the state if he can maintain that standing. His religion continues not to be too much of an issue with only 23% of voters saying they’d be uncomfortable with a Mormon as President.

One important factor contributing to Romney continuing to lead the race is the fact that South Carolinians seem to be focused most of all on November, rather than on the social issues that many might suspect voters in the Palmetto State to consider important:

-South Carolinians, more so than we’ve found in New Hampshire and Iowa, are concerned about electability. 50% say they’re most concerned about a candidate’s ability to beat Barack Obama, while 37% place a bigger priority on the candidate’s positions on the issues. New Hampshire voters were more concerned about issue stances by a 55-37 margin on that question and Iowa voters were by a 54/31 spread. The more voters care about electability, the better Romney’s chances are and he leads Gingrich 35-27 with those folks.

-There’s a growing sense of inevitability that Romney will win the nomination. 46% think he’ll get the nod to 16% for Gingrich with no one else even hitting double digits…voters generally like to pick a winner and there’s a very strong feeling in South Carolina that will be Romney.

Another factor in Romney’s favor is the fact that South Carolina’s elderly/retired population has grown significantly over the years.  Not only is this a demographic group that Romney has done well with in Iowa and New Hampshire, as well as in polling nationally and elsewhere in the country, but as in Florida many of these retirees are transplants from the Northeast, which is obviously a more hospitable area of the country for Romney to begin with. That doesn’t mean Romney is secure, of course, the Bain attacks of the past week do seem to have had some impact on the race and they are likely to be an issue in the two debates next week. However, with Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum once again dividing the conservative vote as they were in New Hampshire. As long as that continues to happen in the Palmetto State, Romney will benefit.

I’ll admit to being surprised by Paul’s rise in the polls, which appears genuine. It appears, though, that he’s benefiting yet again from the fact that South Carolina allows non-Republicans to vote:

Paul is following a formula similar to what helped him to strong finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire: doing well with non-Republicans and young people.  Among actual Republicans in South Carolina he’s at only 12%.  But the state has an open primary and with Democrats and independents planning to vote in it he leads with 24% to 22% for Romney, 17% for Huntsman, and 11% for Gingrich.  We’re only projecting non-Republicans at about 20% of the electorate for South Carolina, but if Paul can bring that share up his prospects will improve.

Paul is also running near even with voters under 45, getting 25% to Romney’s 27% with Gingrich at 20% and Santorum at 13%.  He does quite poorly with voters over 45, getting just 10%, but if he’s able to draw out a younger electorate than the state typically sees his momentum may continue.

PPP’s estimate for likely voter breakdown seems reasonable.  In 2008, exit polling showed that the Party ID breakdown for the GOP Primary was 80% Republican, 18% Independent, and 2% Democrat. A 2% increase in independent voter turnout doesn’t seem an unwarranted estimate at all. So, it’s possible that Paul will do better in the Palmetto State than I was anticipating.

In any event, here’s where the RealClearPolitics Polling Chart has the race now (note that RCP does not include ARG polls in its poll averages):

Romney remains in the lead, but Gingrich seems to have hit a nerve with the Bain attacks, at least to some degree. Ron Paul is rising and about to surpass Rick Santorum. The two candidates who seem to be entirely unaffected by the last weeks events are Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman, who are at the bottom of the pack and quite honestly ought to drop out unless they pull off a miracle of some kind a week from now.

As things stand right now, it still seems likely that Romney will pull off a win next Saturday, although it’s likely to be far narrower than the landslide in New Hampshire. The only thing that seems likely to interfere with that is if one of the conservatives in the race drops out and endorses someone else. Given the egos involved, I find it very unlikely that will happen.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Modulo Myself says:

    The GOP finds appalling the idea of Mitt Romney as their president candidate. Therefore, he’s going to be the GOP’s presidential candidate. Everything else is being driven by people who are unfortunate enough to be stuck covering the race.

  2. michael reynolds says:

    So Gingrich is sitting in Zuccotti Park banging on a drum and attacking predatory capitalism, and it’s hurting Mitt Romney. Kind of have to love that. It’s almost as if Occupy raised awareness and began to change the political atmosphere.

  3. Peacewood says:

    @mr: As one who frequented Zucotti in the past (and probably will again when it restarts in the spring), I find much less daylight between Obama and Romney than I’d like.

    Of course, Romney’s budget is more or less a giveaway to millionaires, and that’s not insubstantial. But Obama had a chance to put Wall Street on the spot and chose not to. He didn’t even make ’em sweat, for God’s sake.

  4. ponce says:


    What an appropriate name for a Republican primary poll.

  5. michael reynolds says:

    I agree up to a point. I don’t know how old you are, but I’m 57 and my first vote was in Nixon vs. McGovern. I have yet to be presented with a choice that made me go squeee! with delight. It’s always the lesser of two evils. (And as it happens in that first round I got that wrong and chose the greater of pretty much all evils.)

    I think we all wished Obama would be another FDR or Lincoln or pick your favorite presidential great. I give him a B- or maybe C+ depending on how pissed off I am over the NDAA. But McCain was a cranky, irrational, anti-choice warmonger. And Romney is a creep and his party evidently headquarters in a lunatic asylum.

    Ask yourself this: would an Obama justice have joined the Citizens United decision?