Web Chat: Previewing the South Carolina Primary

On January 18, Brookings expert Thomas Mann took your questions on the South Carolina primary and the shape of the race for the GOP presidential nomination.

12:30 Vivyan Tran: Welcome everyone, let’s get started.

12:30 Comment From Sarah S: Will Mitt Romney wrap up the nomination in South Carolina?

12:32 Tom Mann: A victory for Romney in South Carolina would likely shorten the contest but not end it. Ron Paul will stick around for some time and Gingrich and Santorum are likely to continue their candidacies at least through the Florida primary. However, there is little doubt that Romney will be the nominee whatever the results in South Carolina.

12:33 Comment From Anne: What do you make of Sarah Palin’s comments last night that she would vote for Newt Gingrich if she lived in South Carolina?

12:34 Tom Mann: Palin is trying to put herself into the conversation and do whatever she can to extend the contest for the nomination. She might even dream of having an opening to enter the race late in the game and be chosen at the convention. But that is pure fantasy.

12:34 Comment From Joe: Did last Monday’s debate make a dent in the projected results of the primary?

12:35 Tom Mann: Yes. It tightened the race a bit, with Gingrich moving up within striking distance of Romney.

12:35 Comment From Tony: Now that Huntsman has dropped out and endorsed Mitt Romney, will we see a boost in his numbers in South Carolina?

12:36 Tom Mann: I don’t think so. Huntsman had so little support in the state and other candidates are attacking Romney which should produce a net decline in Romney’s support.

12:36 Comment From Guest: Is South Carolina going to be telling in terms of how Romney can do with the real conservatives? We know he has problems with this voting bloc, but is South Carolina a good state to determine his ability to get those votes?

12:40 Tom Mann: Romney will never be the first or enthusiastic choice of religious conservatives but I suspect they will grudgingly support him in November. Obama hate is a strong motivating factor. It’s also worth noting that Romney’s support ranges across the groups within the Republican coalition. He is not shut out with any of them and his perceived electability helps him with all of them.

12:40 Comment From Sam: Are the Republicans going to be able to rally around Mitt Romney if he is the eventual nominee? He seems to just be the “best of the worst.”

12:43 Tom Mann: There is no denying the fact that the field of candidates was unusually weak, with Romney the only plausible president. His success reflects more the absence of a strong contender than his own strengths as a candidate. In the end, almost all Republicans will vote for him in November but he will add little to the ticket. Republican prospects depend almost entirely on a negative referendum on Obama.

12:43 Comment From Clare: What role do you think Stephen Colbert will play in South Carolina? Will he affect vote counts?

12:45 Tom Mann: He might boost Cain’s vote by a few points but his real impact is to educate the public about our crazy campaign finance system. That might make a real difference over the long haul.

12:45 Comment From Karen K: What impact will Jon Huntsman’s withdrawal have on the race? Why did he so quickly endorse Romney?

12:47 Tom Mann: Almost no impact at all. He never connected with Republican voters. His economic agenda was extremely conservative but his style suggested moderation and reasonableness. Not much of a market for the latter and few Republicans had any knowledge of the former.

12:47 Comment From Fred: How do you think Romney’s refusal to release his tax returns will affect the South Carolina primary?

12:49 Tom Mann: In his own halting and confusing way, Romney has effectively released his tax returns by acknowledging that his effective tax rate was around 15 percent. This will further fuel debates about fairness and inequality, and reinforce the decision of Democrats to push for higher rates on the very wealthy.

12:49 Comment From Dan: Can you explain a little bit more about what Stephen Colbert is doing in South Carolina? Is this just a comedy bit? Or a real attempt to get people involved?

12:53 Tom Mann: Colbert (and now Stewart) is in the comedy business, first and foremost. That’s how they earn a very good living. But they have mounted a brilliant skit to educate the public on the lunacy of the law on so-called independent super PACs. As a political scientist and educator, I’ve never seen an entertainment program having such an educational benefit.

12:53 Comment From Abigail: Gingrich has made the claim that he could win the nomination if he wins South Carolina. Can he win South Carolina, and would that give him enough of a boost to win the nomination?

12:56 Tom Mann: Yes, Gingrich could win South Carolina (although it is unlikely) but no, he could not capture the nomination. He is deeply flawed as a candidate and officeholder, as his former Republican colleagues have testified, and he has no serious campaign organization in place to compete effectively with Romney. Obama and the Democrats would love for him to win the nomination but it is not going to happen.

12:56 Comment From Jennifer S: What influence do you think the super PAC money had in the first three contests – Iowa and South Carolina especially.

12:59 Tom Mann: In Iowa, they created a larger audience for Newt’s many shortcomings and missteps, thereby boosting Santorum and Romney. In South Carolina, they have probably weakened him further, including the super PAC working on his behalf, largely as a result of the backlash against attacks on Romney’s experience at Bain.

12:59 Comment From Greggy: Who will absorb Huntsman’s would-be votes?

1:00 Tom Mann: There is no significant number of Huntsman would-be votes.

1:00 Vivyan Tran: Thanks for the questions everyone, we’ll see you next week!