South Carolina

Don't Blame the Rednecks for Newt's Win

Pundits may be tempted to pin Gingrich’s big win in South Carolina on rednecks. But the state is so awash in Northern transplants that it's their fault, too, says Michelle Cottle.

How ‘bout that Newt!

Pontificating about Saturday night’s results, the political chattering class are already laying the blame/credit for the dramatic Newt surge at the feet of South Carolina’s rowdy, ass-backward, nostalgic-for-the-confederacy rednecks. We are, after all, talking about a state where a Republican and former public official had to apologize a couple of years back for making a crack on Facebook comparing Michele Obama’s ancestors to a gorilla that had escaped from a local zoo.

I understand the impulse to point fingers. Having grown up in various Southern enclaves, dated my share of good ol’ boys, attended my share of mud bogs, and heard more than my share of racist jokes, I have a solid feel for both the golden and the dark side of Dixie. These are my people, and they can indeed be combative, stubborn, emotional, quick-to-take-offense, and even quicker to punch you in the face if they feel you’ve insulted them or their mamas. They love God, guns, and grits, and they tend to find Mitt Romney’s brand of fakery and smarminess downright offensive. So, yeah, the snarling, thuggish Gingrich had an obvious charm for a fair chunk of shit-kicking South Carolina natives.

But before the rest of the nation gets all uppity about it, keep in mind that Newt’s win is on you, too.

As South Carolina politicians love to point out, for at least a decade now the Palmetto State has been on the receiving end of a flood of refugees from colder, more expensive climes. Talking with Joe “You lie!” Wilson earlier this week, I was treated to a litany of stats about the percentage of GOP primary voters who are “transplants.” Everyone knows the coast is awash in retirees, he noted, but he guesstimated that even primary voters from the state’s “midlands” region (whence he hails) would be 75 percent transplants, mostly from the Midwest. “Half are from Ohio!” he insisted.

While Wilson’s exact numbers may be hard to check, there’s no question that South Carolina has been a major magnet for snowbirds. Especially older folks, who it must be noted are a demographic particularly enamored of Newt. According to census data, between 2000 and 2010, the state gained approximately 300,000 residents between the ages of 55 and 74. The AARP estimates that no less than 60 percent of Republican primary voters are retirees.

Put that all together and what do you get? A primary electorate that, sure, has some of the nativist, retrograde impulses that so many people associate with the Deep South, but that also includes lots and lots of those grumpy, antitax, get-those-kids-off-my lawn, the-country-is-going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket impulses of the Miami Beach senior set.

Setting stats aside, easily the most unhinged person I met in the state this past week was a 60-ish woman who’d fled the Bronx eight years ago. The mouthy transplant was 100 percent convinced that poor Herman Cain has been as faithful to his wife as a devoted Labrador, but was set up by Obama because the president feared Hermie was going to steal away the black vote.

So don’t blame Dixie, America. Newt’s win belongs to all of you.

Especially you nutters from Ohio.