Gwen’s Take: South Carolina Votes

BY Gwen Ifill  January 21, 2012 at 9:09 PM EDT

COLUMBIA, S.C. | In retrospect, it should not come as a surprise that Election Day came to South Carolina with wind, rain and tornado watches. The Gingrich surge here has been that strong.

It cannot be overstated how dramatic the shift from Mitt Romney to Newt Gingrich has been here on the ground. In a single night — after Monday night’s pivotal debate — Romney went from an 8 point lead among Tea Party voters to trailing Gingrich by 7 points the very next day. And then the lead grew.

Plus, when the week began, Romney’s inevitability storyline had him becoming the first Republican nominee to win the first three contests. Now, thanks to the Iowa recount and the Gingrich uppercut, this becomes the first time in decades that those three contests have gone to three separate candidates.

This volatility seemed to take even Gingrich by surprise, but perhaps it shouldn’t have. Dave Woodard, a political scientist at Clemson University, told me their Palmetto Poll survey revealed a strain of anger among Republican voters that responded to Gingrich’s message.

In an informal tour around Columbia-area polling places on Election Day, I encountered voters for Romney, Santorum, Paul and Gingrich. But none spoke to me with more passion about his choice than Bob Whitehead of Lexington after he decided within the last week to vote for the former House speaker.

“He has the intelligence, he has the stamina and he has the gale force to stand up to anybody about anything,” said Whitehead, who originally planned to cast his vote for Romney. “He’s a great debater. He was good as speaker of the House, though he has some baggage. And I think he’d make a good president.”

It was clear to me that South Carolina voters had been paying close attention. “I don’t really trust any of them politicians,” another man said. “It’s kind of like saying if I’m going to have a crook in there, I want a crook who’s going to speak for me, in my direction.” This voter, too, was casting his vote for Gingrich.

The voters I spoke to may have disagreed about who they were supporting, but they all agreed they were anxious to get past an election marked by negative advertising and a flood of candidate robocalls.

At a polling place in Irmo, a steady stream of people filed in and out as Wolfgange Elfe, the precinct manager watched. After all they’d been through in the final week of a raucous campaign, he said, voting day was wonderfully peaceful.

The South Carolina Republican Party is so proud of selecting primary winners who go on to win the party nomination, that they have adopted “We Pick Presidents” as a motto.

Newt Gingrich — buoyed by broad support in the Palmetto State that crossed, geographic and demographic lines, certainly hopes that turns out to be true.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.