Published January 23, 2012
Newt's Jacksonian Revolution
"You are a den of vipers and thieves. I have determined to rout you out, and by the Eternal, (bringing his fist down on the table) I will rout you out!"
-- President Andrew Jackson in a February, 1834 meeting with Philadelphia financiers about his opposition to the creation of a central bank.
The 68-year-old former speaker of the House, twice left as presidential road kill this cycle, won the South Carolina Republican primary in more commanding fashion than either of the two prior GOP nominees.
He doesn't look, talk or act like any major party nominee since the dawn of the television era: too big, too bombastic, too old, too much baggage, too little discipline on the trail. But yet he outperformed George W. Bush, who was none of those things, in South Carolina, a state that has voted quite cautiously since it became "first in the South" in 1980.
So what gives?
There are two ways to win elections. The simplest is to find a way to win the support of the electorate as it exists. But when that's not possible, a candidate must find a way to change the electorate.
That's what Gingrich did on Saturday.
If turnout and vote distribution in South Carolina had been consistent with the 2000 and 2008 contests, Gingrich would certainly have fared worse and quite possibly would have lost. Mitt Romney performed well in the wealthier, more moderate counties on the southern seacoast and showed well in the populous counties of the Midlands around the state capital. That coalition was enough for John McCain.
But there were 30,000 more votes cast than in 2000 and 157,000 more than in 2008. And they mostly came in the northern part of the state, in the Appalachian foothills and along the North Carolina border.
To put that in perspective, the total increase in Republican turnout in South Carolina from 2008 was greater than the entire turnout in Iowa this year. While both Iowa and New Hampshire saw only modest increases in Republican participation, South Carolina shattered old records and added a whole extra Iowa's worth of new voters and gave Gingrich the most votes of any candidate in the state's history.
That's more than just Not Romneyism of this cycle. Polls have shown that Romney has increasingly become tolerable to a wide swath of the Republican electorate. As Romney looked more and more inevitable following his surprise showing in Iowa and dominant performance in New Hampshire, Republicans seemed to be coming to terms with the ides of picking a sober-sided businessman.
Yes, Romney has been hurt by his botched responses about his tax returns, a cynical-sounding offer to release them when they would cause him the least political damage, and attacks on his business record, which has mostly been for Romney to denounce the attacks themselves as inappropriate. And certainly there is the old issue of his Mormon faith, which is eyed warily by many orthodox and evangelical Christians.
But it seems far-fetched that one could attribute a 35 percent increase in voter turnout to simply disdain for Romney. Disliked frontrunners generally produce lower, not higher, turnout.
It is no accident that Gingrich made frequent mention of one of South Carolina's favorite sons, Andrew Jackson. Jackson, born in the Appalachian foothills in South Carolina's upstate, was the father of the Democratic Party as it existed from the 1820s until the turn of the 21st Century: a party for poor folks with blue-collar white voters at its core.
Jackson, bearing a saber-scar on his face delivered by a redcoat when he was a lad, was the angry attack muffin of his day. He stole his wife from another man and horsewhipped and shot some of those who called her an adulteress for it.
He brawled and battered his way through his life as a lawyer and a military officer. His presidential candidacies were fueled by rage at the vested powers in Washington, which were either mercantile elites from Boston, New York and Philadelphia or planter aristocrats from Virginia.
But a wave of immigration from Jackson's fellow Scots-Irish Presbyterians, fueled by the availability of land to the West, had changed the composition of the electorate dramatically. He promised these poor voters, mostly subsistence farmers and "mechanics" (the blue collar voters of the day) that he would go to Washington and smash the establishment that was leaving them out.
In recent decades, Democrats have shifted away from these voters to focus on a coalition based on growing numbers of minority, mostly Hispanic, voters and the growing ranks of government worker unions. Social liberalism and a move away from social welfare and toward a heavy regulatory hand doomed Democrats with these voters. While the Republicans have been happy to get the support, it has also changed the composition and behavior of their primary electorate. The rule-following, establishment-friendly voters of the past have collided with the rebellious inhabitants of the Hillbilly Firewall.
Gingrich is an unlikely heir to Jackson, the horse-whipping, duel fighting military hero of the War of 1812, but he is doing the same thing that Old Hickory did: smash the establishment. How a man who was part of the establishment for so long can be seen as the one to smash it remains something of a mystery. But the best answer is probably that he is not the best vessel, but the only one available.
Most important, Gingrich gives voice to the tremendous rage that has been brewing inside the American electorate. We saw it in 2010 with a historically high turnout among the same down-scale voters that previously made up the Democratic core, but this time they were voting for very conservative Republicans.
We see it also in the remarkable success of Ron Paul compared to his 2008 run, who does best with these voters. His plea to them is simple: empower me to crash the party.
Democrats have their own, smaller version of this in the Occupy Wall Street movement, but the beating heart of this anger at disenfranchisement and arrogant power remains inside the Republican electorate. Call it the Tea Party movement or the Paulistas, these folks are mad as hell, and not just at Barack Obama.
Gingrich's speeches sound silly and overblown to the upscale sophisticates who dominate the upper echelons of American politics and media, a bit too much like Broderick Crawford in "All the King's Men."
But if you are a voter who increasingly believes that the game is rigged against you and your family and that wealthy, politically connected elites are conspiring to enrich and empower themselves at your expense, Gingrich and Paul would sound like the only sane men on the stage.
These voters, now largely conservative independents, certainly seemed willing to accept Gingrich as their imperfect champion. He defeated Romney by 27 points in economically hard-hit Florence County and by 15 points in Greenville County, arguably the birthplace of the Tea Party movement.
Romney has a very good chance to get back on track in Florida. The state is more moderate, very expensive and has a primary closed to independents, keeping out a lot of the angriest voters. But he is now on notice: the rebellion will continue.