Happenstance: On Jan. 21, 1997, Newt Gingrich became the first speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives to be reprimanded and fined for ethical violations. On Jan. 21, 2012, he received a huge victory in the South Carolina GOP primary, propelling him to the front of the pack of presidential hopefuls.
Gingrich's ethical problems, whether in marriage or in his role as speaker of the House, have been quite public, but they apparently caused S.C. Republicans little concern. Gingrich took 40 percent of the vote to Mitt Romney's 28 percent, with Rick Santorum and Ron Paul finishing at 17 percent and 13 percent respectively.
It was a huge upset for Romney and the GOP establishment, and that means the Republican brawl for the White House will go on for at least a few more rounds. It may even launch Gingrich on his way to the nomination. Whichever is the case, Democrats couldn't be more pleased. At last count, the former speaker had a favorable rating of 27 percent in national polls; his unfavorables were at 52 percent. His nomination would assure Barack Obama's re-election.
That's why so many Democrats — including most of the ones I know — crossed over on Primary Day and cast their votes for the Georgia fantasist and fabulist. So far we have yet to hear or read anything about the Democratic cross-over vote in part because it was all on the down low (the Charleston County Democratic chairman sent out an e-mail requesting his people not cross over) and in part because it would be impossible to know which Democrats, or how many, turned Republican for the day.
It seems quite possible that Gingrich would have won the primary without help from his Democratic friends. Most of the last polls before the Saturday primary showed him leading Romney by three to five percentage points. But when the votes were counted Saturday night, he had a double-digit win. Newt has been strutting and crowing ever since, but I am confident that most of his margin of victory came from the unlikeliest of places — Democrats.
More happenstance: On Jan. 21, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that the First Amendment prohibits the government from placing limits on independent spending for political purposes by corporations and unions. Critics of the decision — including the four justices who voted in the minority — predicted that it would lead to a deluge of money into a political system already corrupted by corporate and union cash. That prediction came true with a vengeance in South Carolina, and this is just the first month of an 11-month campaign season.
On the day before the primary, I went with two other members of the group MediaReformSC to examine the public files at two local television stations. I won't bore you with all the numbers, but here are a few of them from station WCSC, which garners nearly 50 percent of all TV ad revenue in the Charleston market, according to account executive James McGrath.
With all contracts and dollars still not accounted for on Jan. 20, Restore Our Future, the Super PAC supporting Mitt Romney, led the spending with $150,000, followed by Winning Our Future (Gingrich) and Make Us Great Again (Rick Perry) at $90,000 each. Next was Red, White, and Blue (Rick Santorum) at $50,000 and Santa Rita (Ron Paul) at $15,000. Stephen Colbert's Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow brought up the rear with $7,000. This is just one station in a rather small market.
In the days leading up to the primary, the average South Carolinian saw 186 political spots, almost all of them negative, blasting from their televisions. Two days before the primary, it was estimated that 25,000 spots had aired in the state. Television stations in South Carolina pulled down more than $11 million, according to Free Press, a national media watchdog. And this does not count the money these unaccountable organizations spent on radio, newspaper, and other media advertising. Yet it's worth noting that while the television stations were assaulting our minds and our communities with attack ads, they were giving virtually nothing back to their viewers in terms of enhanced coverage of the candidates or the issues. The millions of dollars they pocketed during the primary blitz was all gravy for them, and they did it through the use of our public airways.
We are not likely to see anything like it again in the fall, because South Carolina voters long ago took our state out of contention as a battleground in the general election. Maybe being a one-party state does have some benefits after all.