[Posted by Karl]
You know who South Carolina benefits? NotRomney. As RCP’s Sean Trende noted, there was nothing good for Mitt in last night’s numbers, raising a “non-trivial” chance of losing the nomination.
The Fox News exit poll reveals several problems for Romney. First, of the 60% who said a candidate’s religious beliefs matter, Newt Gingrich crushed Romney by a 46-19% margin. This will be less of a factor in other states, but it was more of a factor in South Carolina than some thought it would be this cycle. Gallup and Pew have both polled about a Mormon candidate. Gallup opined it would be a bigger factor in the general election, while Pew opined it would loom larger in the primaries. So far, Pew may have the better argument, but Gallup could yet be proven right if Mitt gets the nomination.
Second, there is the Bain issue. Of the 28% who had a negative view of Romney’s background of investing in and restructuring companies, Gingrich crushed Romney by a 50-3% margin. Granted, it’s a good thing that 64% had a generally positive view of Mitt’s Bain tenure… but that number would likely be smaller in a general election pool. And for those with a negative view, Bain seems toxic.
Third, beyond Bain, the economy did not work as an issue for Romney. The 60% who named the economy as the top issue broke for Gingrich 40-32%. Romney lost by larger margins among the 88% who said they were holding steady or falling behind financially, and those who had someone who lost a job or was laid off in the past three years. By income, Romney overperformed only with families making over $100,000. Gingrich cleaned up in the most economically-distressed areas of South Carolina. People wondered how Romney would play in more economically depressed states; the answer last night was not good.
Fourth, Romney lost the electability vote last night. Of the 45% who thought picking someone who can beat Obama was the top priority, Gingrich beat Romney 51-37%. The media attributes this to Gingrich’s debate performances. The exit polling supports the idea that the debates were important, although the high number of late deciders creates a chicken/egg issue. In this respect, keep in mind that Newt has generally been a good debater throughout. As Larry Sabato noted, the impact of the debates may have come from Romney’s unexpectedly poor performances during the last 10 days. Are Mitt’s fumbling responses to seemingly obvious lines of attack a bigger problem than Bain? Maybe so.
Nevertheless, Romney remains a formidable candidate. His SC concession speech emphasized it would be a long campaign (even though he had hoped otherwise). Romney is currently still better positioned to win a war of attrition. His better-funded and organized campaign has been locking down early voting in Florida and monopolizing the airwaves. However, there have not been many polls in the Sunshine State as Romney slid in South Carolina and nationally. Nate Silver hypothesizes that Mitt’s formidable Florida lead may have shrunk to five points or less.