5 things we learned in the South Carolina primary

Published Jan. 23, 2012

Only a week ago, Mitt Romney seemed to be on a glide path to the nomination. South Carolinians shook everything up. Here's what we learned from the Palmetto State primary:

1. Florida is crucial.

Romney could afford to lose South Carolina, where early on he looked like an underdog anyway. But Florida is his fire wall, buttressed by a strong campaign organization, a flush campaign account and a large network of supporters built over more than five years running for president. Losing here would snuff what's left of his aura of inevitability after winning only one of three early contests.

2. Romney's electability argument is diminished.

He looks like a president, he consistently performs well in debates, he apparently has zero personal baggage, and polls consistently show the former Massachusetts governor strongest against President Barack Obama. But for such a disciplined and cautious campaigner, Romney has a knack for clumsy, unforced errors. He had long benefitted from a "most electable" perception, but that case is harder to make seeing Romney look smug and flat-footed over predictable questions about his tax returns or suggesting $374,000 in speaking fees is not much money.

3. Newt Gingrich owes CNN's John King a big thank you.

Few things fire up conservative activists better than sticking it to the mainstream media, and no one mastered the art better than Gingrich this election cycle. On Thursday, CNN debate moderator King led with his chin by opening the forum with a question about allegations from Gingrich's ex-wife, and Gingrich roared back. His fiery response may have done more to win over South Carolinians than anything else Gingrich did there.

4. Super PACs have changed the game.

Even the most inspiring candidates are lost without money. After the Supreme Court two years ago made it legal for wealthy individuals to spend unlimited amounts to influence federal elections, the basic playbook for financing campaigns is out the window. Gingrich hasn't been much of a fundraiser himself, but it took just one billionaire friend, gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson of Nevada, to write a $5 million check to a pro-Gingrich Super PAC to ensure Gingrich was not entirely drowned out by pro-Romney TV ads in South Carolina.

5. This race could take a while.

For the first time in modern history, one Republican candidate has won Iowa, one New Hampshire and one South Carolina. Regardless of what happens in Florida, it looks increasingly likely we won't know the nominee for some time. After Florida, February is a relatively quiet month, mainly featuring a handful of contests where delegates won't be officially binding for the nomination. March 6 is Super Tuesday, where 10 states vote and candidates could well divide up the delegates relatively evenly. It takes 1,144 delegates to win the nomination, and right now no one is well positioned to reach that threshold any time soon.