In his drop-out speech Wednesday, Newt Gingrich singled out one of the two primary states he won: South Carolina, whose 30-year streak of picking the eventual nominee Gingrich acknowledged he had officially ended.
“I have to thank the voters of South Carolina, and I have to apologize to them,” Gingrich said. “We will have broken their tradition of always picking the nominee. This will make me feel slightly guilty every time we go through South Carolina.”
But Palmetto State experts insist that the first-in-the-south primary state’s importance as an early presidential bellwether remains unchanged – even if the current Republican Party slogan -- “We Pick Presidents” -- is no longer completely accurate.
“Think of it as, if you’re a marketing director for a product, and you have all these slogans to sell your product,” Winthrop University political science professor Scott Huffmon pointed out. “You’ll drop that from your advertising but you’ll still stress everything else.”
He noted that South Carolina would remain the first test of candidates’ strength in the delegate-rich South.
“At last count we have something like 160 Electoral College votes, and you need 270 to win,” Huffmon said. “If you can find a Republican who can appeal to the entire South, and they’ve got almost 60 percent of all the Electoral College votes that they need to become president.”
South Carolina can still sell its primary, Huffmon added, as the place “where the presidential mettle gets tested… where you have to face the first fiery brands of Southern conservatism and see if candidates can stand up.”
State Republican Party Chairman Chad Connelly also said he didn’t think the state’s reputation would suffer as a result of its picking a candidate other than the party nominee.
“We might not have our same branding motto or whatever, but the fact that we’re an important part of the process, that hasn’t changed a bit,” Connelly said, noting that the state’s small size and relatively inexpensive media markets allow campaigns with varying amounts of resources to be competitive – something he suggested strengthens the eventual nominee.
“I think Gov. Romney will tell you that he’s a better candidate, he’s a better debater, he’s better with the people than he was before because of this whole process,” Connelly said. Romney lost South Carolina 40-28 percent to Gingrich.
Connelly stressed that he’s not considering changing the state party’s motto any time soon, focusing more on raising money to send South Carolina volunteers to other swing states to help with Republican get-out-the-vote efforts.
And as far as Gingrich’s apology to the voters of South Carolina, at least one of his supporters says there are no hard feelings.
“He owes no one an apology,” said Allen Olsen, a former Columbia Tea Party leader and one of Gingrich’s earliest proponents in the state. “He just got beat, and I don’t think he owes South Carolina an apology. I’m just proud to support him.”
But, Olsen added, now that Romney has prevailed, he said he wished Gingrich “hadn’t come off sounding like a sore loser” in his speech Wednesday.
“I wish he would have come off and endorsed Romney and offered to work with Romney more,” Olsen said.