Buses are warming up their engines, planes are headed this way and within a few hours the traveling caravan of operatives and volunteers that have made up the campaigns of the South Carolina Republican Presidential primary will be headed south to Florida.
I’m no more clairvoyant than the next guy, and so wouldn’t presume to pick who will win tonight, but South Carolinians for the last 30 years have indeed picked the eventual GOP nominee.
Iowa and New Hampshire might winnow the field, but in every election over these 30 years South Carolinians picked the winner.
In that light the fireworks in this race over the last two weeks here in the Palmetto state show a few trends that I think will be with us through the primary and well beyond in shaping the direction of the Republican party.
Here are a few thoughts:
1. Ron Paul is on to something. One of the most important bell-weathers in political efforts is whether or not you are adding new voters, and more than in any other campaign he has.
It’s anything but his slice of standard republican voters, it’s a different crowd. I have spent a lot of time with GOP voters in this state over the last 16 years and as a consequence know a lot of faces, at Ron Paul rallies I am sure I would recognize few of them – and that is a good thing.
Growing parties and political movements do just that – they grow. They should be anything but a fraternity of the familiar, and in this regard people are always ahead of their parties. Think of George McGovern in the 1972 democratic primary or Pat Robertson in the 1988 republican primary.
Neither won their nomination contests, but both tapped into political movements that were much bigger than their individual candidacies – McGovern with the anti-war movement within the Democratic Party and Robertson in what would become the Christian Coalition. Both movements grew to be dominant forces within their respective parties with impacts that eclipsed these initial campaign starts. Regardless of how Ron Paul does tonight, his movements focus on debt, deficits, governments spending and liberty are going to be a significant part of reshaping the Republican Party going forward.
2. "It’s the economy stupid." That was James Carville’s mantra during the Clinton-Bush race, and it proved to be their winning formula. History does repeat itself, and it looks like we are in “one of those economic times” again.
Nothing else explains Rick Santorum’s inability to ignite in South Carolina. Given the momentum he carried coming out of Iowa, along with South Carolina’s socially conservative leanings, he seemed perfectly positioned to rise to challenge Romney in South Carolina.
I believe his headwind was the economy.
The number of self identified social conservatives and born-again Christians in this state hasn’t changed, nor has their concern for issues like the life of the unborn.
What has changed is their focus.
It’s been said that a recession exists when a neighbor loses their job; a depression exists when you lose yours. In a state with 9.9 percent unemployment many families have experienced both, and as a consequence their most immediate concern has been a job and the economy.
Expect that trend to continue to play out in high unemployment states across this country between now and the nomination.
Finally, I’d say primary voters are still looking for Mr. Right. Not as in the right guy, but as in to the right of Romney. For months we had a seeming flavor of the week with Cain, Bachmann, Perry and more -- while Romney’s numbers stayed amazingly fixed at around one third of the primary’s voters. Two thirds of them were still looking for something else, and here in the 11th hour in South Carolina they seem to be coalescing around Gingrich.
It will be a jump ball tonight, and I don’t know if the late surge is enough to take Newt up and over the top. But what I do believe is that his rise in South Carolina has less to do with two strong debate performances than it does with conservatives in this state still wanting a more conservative standard bearer.
Things that might normally be lethal in a state as conservative as this one are looked over because of the desperation conservatives feel about wanting someone to carry their cause to Washington.
Whether Romney moves right in the primaries to come or is beaten by someone like Gingrich who is already perceived to be there we will see…but make no mistake South Carolina has already set the tone for more “right” to come.
So hang on and remember it’s: Mr. Right, the economy, and Ron Paul’s army and still lots more to come as these three trends ripple out from South Carolina’s primary.
Former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford is a Fox News contributor.