Ron Paul coming in fourth in South Carolina with 13 percent was, well, not good for the narrative (which I believed a week ago pretty strongly, and still think is possible) that the GOP presidential campaign was really already down to Romney and Paul. Gingrich's rise in South Carolina was precipitous, unexpected, and as near as I can see somewhat inexplicable.
The most coherent such explanation I've seen so far is delivered pretty well here by Bill Schneider in the Huffington Post: that Gingrich (a Rockefeller man, not a Goldwater man) is starting to strike the GOP base as both pleasingly anti-establishment compared to Romney and a better partisan gut-fighter against Obama. (Though I wish it were more widely noted that Paul still beats Gingrich against Obama in one-on-one matchups.) Tim Stanley in the UK Telegraph sees the classic Tea Party demographic seeming to line up behind Gingrich, which may be correct. I still think Ron Paul has a fairer-than-Gingrich claim to that group in ideological logic, but that might not become clear to them until Gingrich (and Santorum) are no longer contenders.
One nice sign for Paul hopefuls is that South Carolina proves the race is still unpredictable and reminds us that the electorate's whims are, well, whimsical. But it's far easier to believe a GOP electorate will shift suddenly and inexplicably toward such allegedly vetted and mainstream choices as the former Speaker of the House who can convincingly upbraid the evil mainstream media than a Ron Paul who most media sources are always trying to tell voters is too radical or doesn't even exist.
Gingrich's SuperPAC still seems willing to fund him to the hilt; whether he has enough money to pull off the other elements of campaigning remains to be seen, or whether he has the organization to actually pull enough delegates regardless. I eagerly await the release of the 2011 Q4 financials for all the campaigns.
South Carolina gives some credence to the idea that Paul will only do really well when his mighty ground game machine is in full swing: all the months of candidate appearances, volunteer hours, and phone operations that made Iowa and New Hampshire work out so well for him were not in effect in South Carolina, and he lost even to Santorum. Paul did, as usual, win the 18-29 vote in South Carolina; his ideas are the future of the Republican Party if it is to have one.
Other interesting bits from South Carolina exit polls: Against all actual political and ideological logic, Paul doing worst among Tea Pary supporters; doing worst among the older-than-65 crowd; Paul voters were least likely to have had someone in household laid off in past three years; and he was second choice of those to whom "strong moral character" was a dominant consideration.
I still believe in the analysis that a Paul with Gingrich and Santorum out of the way will be a mighty Paul; I'm less sure that it's going to get to that point quickly. Some Paul fans are spinning it as great for Paul that the race still seems up in the air; I'm having a hard time seeing it. But, as Paul says, it's grossly premature to declare anyone a winner or a loser yet; the slow slog of accumulating delegates is still ahead and ultimately whoever has more than 1140 will be the winner.
Some other Paul bits:
-- Oliver Stone on Ron Paul: "I think in many ways the most interesting candidate – I’d even vote for him if he was running against Obama – is Ron Paul. Because he’s the only one of anybody who’s saying anything intelligent about the future of the world."
-- Ron Paul came in second in New Hampshire twice--not just with the Republican Party, but with theDemocratic Party as well.
-- The Christian Science Monitor explains why Paul isn't spending much money and time on Florida--it's winner takes all, closed to all but registered Republicans, and with the punishment laid on them for holding their vote so early, has only 50 delegates to win.