Upending the Republican presidential race, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich easily won Saturday’s South Carolina primary.
His double-digit victory capped off a dramatic rise in the polls after he trailed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the Palmetto State by double-digits just days earlier.
Conservative evangelical voters lifted Gingrich to his dramatic victory as the thrice-married politician won the first southern primary by invoking subtle racial arguments.
Prior to the vote, Gingrich drew fire for repeatedly calling President Barack Obama the “food stamp president.”
Critics, who argue such rhetoric is racially motivated, note that George W. Bush beat John McCain in the 2000 South Carolina primary in part because of an inaccurate whisper-campaign claiming McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child.
Bush also spoke that year at Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist Christian school in South Carolina with a history of segregation policies.
While defending his “food stamp” comment and claiming it was not racially motivated, Gingrich stated, “I will go to the NAACP convention, and explain to the African-American community why they should demand paychecks instead of food stamps.”
NAACP President and CEO Todd Jealous and independent fact-checkers quickly noted that the majority of food stamp recipients are not African American and that most adults using food stamps are employed.
“It is a shame that the former Speaker feels that these types of inaccurate, divisive statements are in any way helpful to our country,” Jealous said. “Gingrich’s statement is problematic on several fronts, most importantly because he gets his facts wrong.”
Jealous also noted that Gingrich had been repeatedly invited to speak at NAACP conventions but had refused to attend.
Gingrich’s comments quickly attracted criticism from religious and political leaders familiar with race politics in the South.
U.S. Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) pointed to Gingrich’s “food stamp president” rhetoric to explain Saturday’s vote.
“He was throwing red meat to his base,” said Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American in the U.S. House of Representatives. “Throwing code words to his base, words we’re familiar with in South Carolina.”
“All of this carries certain connotations that people know very, very well, and I think that he practiced that perfectly,” Clyburn added. “I’m saying he’s appealing to an element in the party that sees Obama as different than any of the other presidents that we’ve had.”
Three days before the vote in South Carolina, another prominent southern politician warned about the racial undertones of Gingrich’s rhetoric.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, a long-time Baptist Sunday school teacher, criticized the rhetoric of a man who used to also be a fellow Southern Baptist in Georgia.
“I think he has that subtlety of racism that I know quite well and that Gingrich knows quite well, that appeals to some people in Georgia, particularly the right wing,” Carter stated on CNN’s “Piers Morgan Tonight.”
“He knows as well the words that you use, like welfare mamas and so forth, that have been appealing in the past, in those days when we had serious segregation of the races,” Carter added when asked if Gingrich’s rhetoric was deliberate. “So he’s appealing for that in South Carolina.”
Like Clyburn, Carter added that he did not believe Gingrich was a racist, just that Gingrich was purposely using “subtle words” to win votes.
A group of more than 40 Catholic leaders and theologians also criticized Gingrich and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum for their race-imbued poverty rhetoric.
Santorum, who finished a distant third on Saturday, had made a similar argument about race and poverty, but not done so as frequently as Gingrich.
The open letter urged Gingrich, Santorum and the other presidential candidates “to reject the politics of racial division, refrain from offensive rhetoric and unite behind an agenda that promotes racial and economic justice.”
“As Catholic leaders who recognize that the moral scandals of racism and poverty remain a blemish on the American soul, we challenge our fellow Catholics Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum to stop perpetuating ugly racial stereotypes on the campaign trail,” the Catholic leaders argued prior to the South Carolina primary vote.
“Some presidential candidates now courting ‘values voters’ seem to have forgotten that defending human life and dignity does not stop with protecting the unborn,” they added. “We remind Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Santorum that Catholic bishops describe racism as an ‘intrinsic evil’ and consistently defend vital government programs such as food stamps and unemployment benefits that help struggling Americans.”
Gingrich’s appeals to what the Catholic leaders called “values voters” paid off in Saturday’s vote.
According to exitpolls, 65 percent of voters were evangelicals and Gingrich won 44 percent of them. That put him 1 percent ahead of what Southern Baptist pastor and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee won from the group in 2008 when evangelicals accounted for only 60 percent of the vote.
Gingrich lost non-evangelicals to Romney by a 38-33 percent margin. Romney, however, came in a distant second with evangelical voters with only 22 percent – only 1 percent better Santorum.
Gingrich also outperformed Romney among the 60 percent of voters who said the religious beliefs of candidates matter a “great deal” or “somewhat.”
Gingrich captured 46 percent of this vote while Romney only received 20 percent. Santorum beat Romney in this demographic by garnering 22 percent of this demographic. Huckabee only received 40 percent of this vote in 2008.
Among voters who said the religious beliefs of candidates mattered “not much” or “not at all,” Gingrich lost to Romney by a 39-32 percent margin.
Gingrich’s strong showing among evangelicals and voters claiming to care about the religious beliefs of candidates occurred despite his history of affairs and divorces.
Two days before the South Carolina primary, Gingrich’s second ex-wife claimed he had asked her for an “open marriage,” a charge he strongly denied while attacking the media.
Gingrich’s strong support among evangelicals represented a rebuke of conservative evangelical leaders who gathered in Texas one week earlier to endorse Santorum.
Following the “open marriage” allegations, some conservative evangelicals claimed the allegations would not hurt Gingrich with conservative evangelicals because his attacks on the media would resonate with voters.
David Brody of Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network argued that the allegations cannot hurt Gingrich too much because he has a “well-known history of troubled marriage.”
Instead, Brody added, Gingrich’s attacks on the media excite conservative evangelicals.
“Evangelicals have been bashed by the media for decades, so this is a common bond he’s able to play up with them,” Brody said. “He was able to develop a kinship with evangelicals over this last night.”
Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, echoed that sentiment.
“The press is so unpopular with Republican voters that his answer helps him in the short term – it was a tactically brilliant answer,” Land said.
Before the “open marriage” allegations, Land had recently offered a possibility for Gingrich to receive political forgiveness – even though Land did not offer such grace to liberal politicians with similar moral failings.
In addition to defending Gingrich on allegations of moral failings, Land also defended Gingrich’s remarks on race and poverty.
“I think that Newt was trying hard to talk about the opportunity society versus the entitlement society and I think he’s basically right – and that the head of the NAACP is being just a little too sensitive,” Land said when asked about Gingrich’s controversial remarks.
Land added that the faith-based initiatives effort of former President George W. Bush was a way to help African Americans and Hispanics “get off the liberal plantation and out of the liberal barrio.”
“Given the history of southern evangelicals on race, people of goodwill can never be too sensitive about the politics of race,” said Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics. “To ignore the use of the dog-whistle politics of race is to be dishonest about the sinful nature of politics.”
The exit polls for Saturday’s primary did not ask voters if they were motivated by attacks on the media or what they thought about Gingrich’s racially suggestive comments, but the polls did reveal that 98 percent of South Carolina Republican presidential primary voters were white.
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.