January 21, 2012
Gingrich Wins South Carolina, Finding Support Among Evangelicals
Romney received as many evangelical votes as Santorum, the candidate backed by many social conservatives.
Newt Gingrich won the Republican presidential primary in South Carolina with the strong support of evangelicals. According to exit polls, two-thirds of voters described themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians, 44 percent of which voted Gingrich. Their support turned the first Southern primary from a close race to a runaway victory for Gingrich.
Gingrich found support from evangelicals despite efforts by evangelical leaders in the social conservative movement to rally behind Rick Santorum. Fearing that social conservatives might split their voting power, a group of 150 met last weekend in an attempt to coalesce behind a single candidate. Evangelicals in South Carolina did come together—just for a different candidate. In fact, only 21 percent of evangelicals backed Santorum, the same percentage that voted for Mitt Romney.
Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, who served as spokesman for the Texas gathering, said on MSNBC tonight that he did not expect those in the group to switch to Gingrich. While Perkins said there was a willingness to forgive Gingrich's less-than-perfect personal life, Gingrich's character was still an issue. “There is concern over whether or not he would be that consistent and stable leader,” Perkins said.
Gingrich won, in part, because he was able to win over both religious conservatives and those for whom religion is less important in the voting booth. Voters who said the religious beliefs of candidates mattered “a great deal” backed both Gingrich (45 percent) and Santorum (32 percent).
Among those for whom religion is only matters “somewhat,” Gingrich’s support remained high but Santorum's dropped to only 15 percent. Gingrich also did well among those who said religion mattered little or not all. He received around a third of these less religiously minded voters, nearly equaling Romney's share (39 percent).
Gingrich did well throughout the state. To win, he needed Romney to do poorly in along the coast and in the more populous counties in the state. He won counties with some of the major metropolitan areas like Columbia and Charleston by narrow margins. In the more conservative highlands, Gingrich was able to easily make up the difference and seal the victory.