Yesterday, two representatives from Her Majesty’s Government came to see me to talk politics, as they periodically do.
It can be fun to play the local expert, whether for national or foreign media, or in service of the Special Relationship — especially if you’re an Anglophile like me. Maybe I can’t see “Tinker, Tailor” where I live (yet), but I can contribute to a report that might, just might, cross a latter-day George Smiley’s desk. OK, so it’s not very likely, but hey, I can dream…
So yesterday, I had to tell my visitors that I just can’t explain what’s happening in the South Carolina primary, and therefore can’t predict anything. And that’s the unfortunate truth.
I don’t know why Newt Gingrich is suddenly leading by double digits in polls in South Carolina, other than it’s his turn. I don’t know whether that trend will continue, because I don’t understand the dynamics that led her to this point.
And one of the problems is this: I’m not hearing from people who are Gingrich fans. I have to acknowledge that maybe there are things I don’t hear, or am not exposed to, because I’m no longer the editorial page editor of the state’s largest newspaper. Maybe that’s why I feel like I understand what’s happening now less than I understood the situation four years ago.
But you know what? So much of what I was hearing and seeing then was through my blog. I wrote relatively little about national politics in the paper, so most of my interactions in that area were online. And to the extent that I was seen as someone engaged in writing about the presidential race, it was online. For instance, a number of the national and international media types who were interviewing me initially didn’t even know I worked at the newspaper; they had come to me as a widely-read blogger.
And I’m more widely read online now than I was then. My monthly page views are at least four times what they were then. And yet…
- My traffic hasn’t been steadily climbing in the months leading up to the primary, the way it did four years ago. It hit a peak in August, then dropped a bit.
- I haven’t had a request for an interview from national or international sources since I spoke with E.J. Dionne at the start of November, which would be weird anytime, but especially with a primary coming up.
- I just don’t run into people who are excited about the upcoming primary, either online or in person. Think about it — beyond Doug’s perpetual support for Ron Paul, who have you seen here who is pumped about a candidate? Well, it’s like that in the wider world. Quick — name five people you know who are eager to vote for Newt? You probably can’t. I know I can’t. People may be saying they’ll support Newt when a pollster asks, but they’re not going around bubbling with public excitement about it.
- There were several national and international advocacy groups that had set up SC offices for the duration four years ago — and they had done it months before now. By the summer of 2007, they were up and running. This time, I know of one such group that has started a local office in recent months — One, the Bono group. I know a lot of nonprofits are far less flush with money than they were then, but it’s still remarkable.
Yes, I know that the buzz in SC should only be half of what it was four years ago, since only one party is having a primary. But it’s really much less than half. Things just feel dead by comparison.
I think one reason for that is expressed in that same Winthrop poll I referenced above. It also shows that 59 percent of those polled — and that includes Republicans — believe that Obama’s going to be elected. That, combined with a lower energy level (compared to last year) among Tea Partiers, has led to a really subdued campaign.
In a normal campaign, the fact that Newt is so far ahead, this late, would mean that he had it more or less locked up. This year, I don’t know. The polls give so easily this year, and can so easily take away. And this is Newt Gingrich — a guy with a well-known talent for self-destruction.
Normally, at this point, South Carolinians would be coalescing around the Republican most likely to with the nomination — usually, the establishment. A Bush. Bob Dole. John McCain. Now, the very definition of what it is to be a Republican — much less a South Carolina Republican — is more up in the air than at any time I remember.
So it seems to me there’s a better-than-even chance that SC won’t pick the eventual winner this time. The whole process is too wobbly, and less susceptible to steadying factors than in the past. And if that happens, there will be even less energy, and much less national attention, focused on the SC GOP primary four years from now.
But I just don’t know. When it’s hard to explain why what is already happening is happening, it’s very hard to predict what will happen next.