Updated: January 20, 9:48 A.M.
The day after the New Hampshire primary, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was riding high, becoming the first Republican candidate to win both the Iowa caucuses and the Granite State. In the days after, he saw an immediate boost in the South Carolina polls, making it look fairly secure that he was going to secure the GOP nomination for president.
And then it all came crashing down.
Over last weekend, Romney had expanded to a ten point lead in South Carolina. He was getting hit on his time as Bain Capital’s CEO, but the attacks weren’t exactly sticking with Republican primary voters — it seemed like the messengers (Gingrich, Texas Gov. Rick Perry) were more likely to get dinged for being against free enterprise than they were hurting Romney. But Monday night’s Republican debate provided a major turning point. Not because Romney did so poorly, but because Gingrich did so well.
On Wednesday and Thursday, a flood of polls came in showing major movement for Gingrich — he went from ten points down to leading in some of them, and all within a period of two days. The trend was clear and best exemplified by NBC/Marist data: the day before the Republican debate, Romney was ahead by fifteen. The day after he was only behind by five. By the time Public Policy Polling (D), Rasmussen and InsiderAdvantage conducted snap polls on Wednesday, Newt was ahead.
The key, it seems, has been what has driven the incredibly fickle Republican primary audience the whole time — very conservative voters. Last week, it looked like Romney was finally consolidating a substantial portion of the the conservative bloc with his more typical moderate GOP support. But all it took was a fiery Gingrich performance in the state to send conservative votes running toward him in a big way. See the chart below for that group’s movement over the last few weeks.
It seems that this group has essentially swung the race toward Gingrich — Newt now leads in our TPM Poll Average of the contest by nearly six points. His resurgence is also happening as events on the ground are changing by the hour. An ABC interview with Newt’s second wife, featuring her accusation that Gingrich wanted an open marriage, aired Thursday night. By all accounts, Newt won the debate that concluded just an hour before, and Romney didn’t do himself any favors. Texas Gov. Rick Perry dropped out of the race and endorsed Gingrich noon on Thursday. All this, and voting in the Palmetto State starts tomorrow morning.
This is state of the race at the moment — zoom in by clicking and dragging to see the huge Newt surge in the last few days.
In short, South Carolina is proving to be the race it originally assumed to be, and despite a brief lull the race is back to being as volatile has it has been for months.
Kyle is the Editor of TPM Media’s PollTracker. He graduated from Beloit College (WI) and began working in politics before getting an M.A. in magazine journalism from New York University, where he interned at TPM and the website of The New Yorker.