Newt Gingrich has won the South Carolina Republican primary, Fox News projects, further scrambling an already volatile primary race that has produced three different winners in three states.
Fox News projects that Mitt Romney will place second in the Palmetto State. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul are battling for third place, and that contest remains too close to call, though Fox News exit polls show Santorum with a slight lead over the Texas congressman.
Romney's aides had been downplaying expectations by late Saturday, acknowledging the momentum that had been going Gingrich's way in recent days.
Exit polling confirmed his advantage among several groups of voters.
Those who made up their minds late broke for Gingrich, while those who had decided early mostly backed Romney. Late deciders outnumbered early deciders 53-46 percent.
Gingrich also had the advantage among voters who viewed the debates as important. And Gingrich was leading among those who say it's important that a candidate shares their religious beliefs. Romney, a Mormon, led among those who care less about a candidate's religious affiliation.
South Carolina has a reputation as a tie-breaker in the Republican primaries, often setting the winner on a relatively smooth course to the nomination. But Saturday's contest only complicate things. With Gingrich's victory there have been three distinct winners in the first three contests.
Gateway Pundit has this video showing the exit poll info.
More exit poll info from SeeBS, via Legal Insurrection.
Sixty-four percent said the debates were an important factor for them; just 34 percent said they were not…. A majority of voters – 53 percent – said they made up their mind about who to back within the last few days….South Carolina voters overwhelmingly cited the economy as the most important issue, with 61 percent citing it….Forty-five percent say it’s most important that they have a candidate who can defeat Barack Obama in a general election, while 21 percent are most concerned someone with the right experience, 17 percent they have strong character, and 14 percent they are a true conservative. Asked which candidate ran the most unfair campaign, 30 percent pointed to Romney, 26 percent to Gingrich and 14 percent to Paul.
Someone tell Willard Romney, the personal attacks and mudslinging are turning off voters.
Erick Erickson has some thoughts at RedState:
Newt Gingrich’s rise has a lot to do with Newt Gingrich’s debate performance. But it has just as much to do with a party base in revolt against its thought and party leaders in Washington, DC. The base is revolting because they swept the GOP back into relevance in Washington just under two years ago and they have been thanked with contempt ever since.
Adding insult to injury, the party and thought leaders now try to foist on the base a milquetoast moderate from Massachusetts. Newt Gingrich can thank Mitt Romney and more for the second look he is getting. Base hostility will now be exacerbated by Mitt Romney’s backers now undoubtedly making a conscious effort to prop up Rick Santorum to shut down Newt Gingrich.
...People are mad as hell they are about to be stuck with another boring, moderate, uninspiring choice that has at best a 50/50 shot at losing to the worst president since Carter. They are flocking to Newt not because they think he’s a great guy, but because right now, he’s the only one fighting for conservatism and GOP voters are looking for a vessel to channel their anger with Obama and their complete disappointment with the GOP establishment which is now embodied perfectly by Romney. They want a conservative fighter because most conservatives look back at Ford, Reagan, Bush, Dole, Bush, and McCain and see only the ones taking a conservative path against the Democrats actually winning.
....Newt has taken the worst the media, Romney and the left can dish out, and he’s still standing and fighting with passion and eloquence. Sure, he’d probably be an erratic President, but right now Republican voters don’t care about his Presidency. They care about the fight with the left both Mitt Romney, and the Washington Republican leaders like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell don’t seem inclined to engage in.
In every way in the last two weeks, Romney has signaled he won’t fight for the base. He looks like a lost child when trying to answer the taxes issue. He couldn’t stand up to Santorum in the debate. He sounds every bit like Gordon Gekko, not Milton Friedman, when he talks Bain and free markets.
Basically, today’s vote is about Republican grassroots giving the Washington Republican establishment the finger. The base is angry, and right now, only Newt is left to fight for them, as imperfect as he is. We may still end up with Romney, but voters aren’t going to let him have it easily.
Party leaders who have invested so much in Mitt Romney might want now to ride on to a brokered convention and find someone acceptable to everyone. Because this most divisive and bitter primary in years is going to wipe out the GOP’s chances to win in November. And while few of the Romney advocates of the past four years will admit it, it is because they have tried to foist onto the base a milquetoast moderate from Massachusetts as energizing to conservatives as a dead battery.