Last Laugh

Obama Gets Lucky in South Carolina Primary Results

The president couldn’t have asked for better results in South Carolina. Andrew Romano reports.

Haraz N. Ghanbari / AP Photo

In that now-famous video from the Apollo Theater, President Obama is crooning “Let’s Stay Together” to Al Green, the soul legend who first recorded it.

But he might as well have been singing to the Republican Party.

By awarding Newt Gingrich a double-digit victory over Mitt Romney in Saturday’s South Carolina primary, the GOP has done a remarkable thing: it has proven that Obama, one of the most vulnerable incumbents in recent memory, is even luckier than anyone previously imagined. And he was known for being pretty lucky already.

Consider: in 2004, two of his Illinois Senate rivals got mired in spousal scandals; the other was Alan Keyes. Hillary Clinton probably would have won the 2008 presidential contest if her staff had figured out how to stockpile delegates in the smaller states. And Obama was actually losing to John McCain in September 2008. Then Lehman Brothers collapsed and the Arizona senator went haywire. Obama looked Mount Rushmore–esque in comparison.

The president's good fortune seems to have returned in time for the 2012 election. The strongest of his potential Republican rivals—New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, former Florida governor Jeb Bush—have all refused to run, despite heavy courting from conservative power players. Meanwhile, the strongest Republican to make the leap (Romney) has turned out to be a supporter of federal stimulus packages and an originator of the reforms that eventually became Obamacare. It’s difficult to attack someone for doing something you yourself did (or would have done).

But South Carolina takes Obama's luck to another level. Last weekend, pundits insisted that there was only one plausible scenario going forward: Romney captures the Palmetto State and wraps up the nomination by the end of January. That would have been bad for Obama because the Republican attacks on Romney would have ended and Romney’s attacks on Obama would have intensified.

But now there are two possible outcomes, and both of them appear to be rosier for the president. The first is that Romney still clinches the nomination, but not this month, or next, or even the one after that. As Howard Fineman reports, the GOP slap fest will now last “at least until May”—“not only because there seems to be a genuine three-way race in the offing (or at least a two-and-a-half-way) involving Gingrich, Romney, and Paul, but because of the GOP's primary calendar and state-by-state rules for choosing delegates.”

In Saturday’s concession speech, Romney claimed that the prolonged contest is “making our campaign better.” But the evidence suggests otherwise. Mitt hasn’t gained support over time in these primaries and caucuses; he’s either shed it, as in New Hampshire, or stalled out, as in Iowa. In South Carolina he squandered a 14-point lead in a matter of days.

What’s more, by attacking Bain Capital, Romney’s fellow Republicans, Newt in particular, are now accelerating and amplifying the DNC’s long-planned assault on the central rationale of Mitt's campaign: his purported job-creation abilities. The onslaught is working: since December, unfavorable reactions to Romney’s Bain experience have increased by more than 75 percent among Republicans, and it was Gingrich, not Romney, who prevailed among South Carolina voters most worried about the economy. The Bain issue won't disappear before fall; Obama will simply quote Gingrich in his inevitable attack ads, which will air just as the majority of Americans are first tuning in to the election. In fact, there’s a real risk that Romney will become the John Kerry of 2012: an unloved Bay Stater who was nominated because his résumé matched the moment—Kerry the war hero; Romney the economic turnaround artist—but then saw his strongest selling point transformed into his biggest weakness.

Anyway, the bottom line is that the Romney camp chose to follow the “inevitability” playbook for a reason. They wanted to triumph quickly, with minimal bloodshed. They didn’t want a long slog.

The second scenario also involves a long slog. It's less likely, but after Saturday, it’s possible: Gingrich, whose disapproval rating is 13 percentage points higher than his approval rating, somehow winds up winning the nomination. This would be the luckiest thing that has ever happened to Obama. The amateurness of Gingrich’s candidacy is obscured when he’s on the debate stage, which is where most voters have encountered him. But on the trail, it’s unavoidable. As I wrote Saturday, “the level of nontraditionalness on display [at Newt’s campaign events is], to borrow a phrase, utterly profound—so profound, frankly, that it makes it hard to imagine Gingrich ever really being able to ramp up and go toe to toe with President Obama’s ultrasophisticated reelection operation.”

One example. On the stump here in South Carolina, Gingrich was constantly promising voters that he would “challenge the president to seven three-hour debates in the Lincoln-Douglass tradition.” If Obama refused, Newt continued, he would simply turn up the heat. “When we get to Tampa, in my acceptance speech, I will announce that the White House will be my scheduler,” he told the crowd in Beaufort on Thursday. “Wherever the president goes I will show up four hours later. I don’t think it will take very many weeks of me methodically rebutting his speeches for the White House to say they want to debate.”

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The audience, of course, applauded. But Gingrich’s plan is delusional—a professorial fantasy that neatly illustrates why his scattershot, shoestring style of improvisational campaigning will be no match for Obama’s rigorous, high-tech, billion-dollar behemoth. Say it actually happens. Team Obama gets to plan everything weeks in advance. They secure a picturesque site. They recruit a bunch of enthusiastic attendees. They hone their voter-registration techniques. They prepare the president’s remarks. And then, and only then—a few days beforehand—do they announce where and when the event is going to take place. At that point, Team Gingrich must scramble to catch up, struggling at the 11th hour (and likely failing) to attract a similar number of supporters and book an equally presidential venue. The disparity will be on display—on the evening news, on the Internet, on Twitter—for all to see. As a result, Newt will end up looking like a desperate, disorganized beta candidate who’s letting his rival dictate the terms of their engagement—which is what he will be. And Obama will look very, very lucky.

On Friday, I met a voter named Laura Snipes at a Gingrich event in Orangeburg. She was 64 and had recently lost her $500-to-$1,000-a-week bartending job, so she had taken to selling Avon beauty products to pay her bills. Her politics weren’t particularly rigid. “I always vote for the man,” she said. “Not the party.” She’d come to the Newt event because she was thinking of supporting him in Saturday’s primary. But, really, she wasn’t impressed with the Republican field.

“Quite honestly, I would prefer Obama to what I’ve seen so far, to go back in,” Snipes told me. “You can’t just go in in a couple of years and straighten their messes out. I mean, I think he’s trying. He’s made mistakes. [But] these guys aren’t going to be any better.”

If Gingrich’s victory means anything, it’s that even more swing voters will eventually come to the same conclusion as Snipes: “These guys aren’t going to be any better.”

The opening lines of “Let’s Stay Together” go a little something like this: “I'm so in love with you / Whatever you want to do / It's alright with me.” I can almost hear Obama singing them now.