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Sorting Out Cause and Effect in South Carolina

This item is cross-posted from The New Republic.

Sorting out cause and effect in political campaigns is not always simple. Some people look at John McCain's nomination in 2008 and Mitt Romney's success in Iowa and New Hampshire this year and see highly fortuitous demolition derbies. Others look at the same facts and intone "next-in-line" or some similar Iron Law of presidential politics.

So it's not surprising there might be serious differences of opinion over the latest unlikely set of events in the 2012 contest: Newt Gingrich's attacks on Romney's record at Bain Capital, and the apparent revival of the former Speaker's campaign in South Carolina.

The basic data points are all reasonably clear: immediately after finishing fourth in New Hampshire, Gingrich (with Rick Perry as his wing-man) starts blasting Romney as a job-killing corporate predator. His SuperPAC, Winning Our Future, infused with a fresh $5 million by casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, put out a lurid trailer for a "film" about Bain Capital's alleged atrocities against companies and workers with the evocative title: "When Mitt Romney Came To Town." (The documentary is also dubbed in accompanying publicity material as "King of Bain.") Said film, a 28-minute masterpiece of invective, was put up on the web, to the glee of Democrats astonished at this gift to their own general-election talking points. The conservative commentariat came down on Newt (and to a lesser extent Perry) like a ton of bricks, accusing him of treason against capitalism. Gingrich danced this way and that, at first seeming to regret this line of attack, then continuing it. Winning Our Future began airing 30- and 60-second snippets from its film in South Carolina, as part of a $3.4 million ad buy. Fact-checkers tore into the film, accusing it of various slurs against both Romney's role in Bain and the specific accusations against the company's practices.

What came next was surprising: New polls came out showing Gingrich with rising support in South Carolina, at the expense of both Romney and Iowa co-winner Rick Santorum. Then Gingrich suddenly announced he was asking his SuperPAC to edit or take down the film, and perhaps its ads, too, if they also prove to be inaccurate. (He also demanded that Mitt rein in his SuperPAC, which did untold damage to Newt in Iowa and is now heavily buying up ad time in South Carolina.) Winning Our Future dragged its feet on complying, saying it won't act until Romney enumerates any inaccuracies and also answers some new questions about his relationship with Bain. As of this writing, the film is still up on the internet, and Winning Our Future has moved on to a new round of attack ads against Romney in South Carolina, focusing on his own dubious claims of job creation at Bain, and his "moderate" record as governor of Massachusetts.

One key imponderable is the extent to which actual South Carolina Republican primary voters have absorbed the back-and-forth maneuverings. Few have probably seen the full Winning Our Future film, which is the source of the most controversial accusations against Romney and Bain, and of the elite conservative backlash against Gingrich for countenancing it. And it's not clear those who do see or hear about it will fully identify with its Michael Moore-ish message (though it's not entirely the sort of thing a lefty would produce; it's loaded with xenophobic flourishes in addition to "corporate-raider" bashing). Complicating the picture even more is that the most likely receptive audience for this message of anger at Wall Street predators are downscale white voters in the Piedmont and Pee Dee regions of South Carolina, who also harbor lots of Christian Right/Tea Party sentiments--that is to say, anti-Romney tendencies.

The crosscurrents in South Carolina are probably best illustrated by oracular comments from the king of Palmetto State conservatism, Senator Jim DeMint. DeMint (who has said he is not endorsing a candidate) joined the chorus of criticism of Gingrich for his supposed anti-free-enterprise message, and predicted a Romney win in his state. But within the same 24-hour span, he also, in the course of saying nice things about Ron Paul, suggested there is no room for "moderates" in today's GOP.

Need still another complication for figuring out what's going on? A group of Christian Right leaders convened in Texas by Family Research Council chief Tony Perkins has just endorsed Rick Santorum, after a multi-ballot vote in which Gingrich seems to have done initially well, while Perry--who hosted many of the same worthies in a highly publicized event over the summer--was largely dismissed as yesterday's news.

So did Newt's mini-surge in the polls result from his attacks on Romney, the SuperPAC's vicious artistry, or perhaps just an inevitable consolidation of right-wing opposition to Romney's nomination? And of equal importance, how much of the eventual outcome of the primary will be attributed to this saga? There remains another week of campaigning, and a televised debate. But regardless of the result, the attacks on Romney could play a major role, whether it's via damage done to Romney or to the growing anger of conservative opinion-leaders against Gingrich for raising this toxic issue in the first place. So important lessons will be learned from this strange phase of this strange nomination contest. But which ones?