NBC News immediately called the election for Gingrich upon polls closing at 7 p.m. followed soon after by Fox News.
As of 1:40 a.m. with 99 percent of precincts reporting, Gingrich led Mitt Romney 40 percent to 28 percent, with Rick Santorum in third place and Ron Paul in fourth.
For much of the 2011 campaign season Gingrich polled in the low single digits until a sudden surge in late November and early December, following a series of impressive performances in the nationally televised GOP debates. The unorthodox heavy debating schedule has played to Gingrich’s strength as a candidate, and led to his frontrunner status, in spite of his initially being behind in fundraising and organization.
Gingrich’s surprise surge in the late fall was followed by a successful campaign of negative advertising against him by Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, knocking his polling numbers all the way down to the mid-teens nationally, and leading to his fourth place finish in Iowa and fifth place finish in New Hampshire.
Almost taken for down and out, Gingrich’s campaign was buoyed this week by endorsements from Sarah Palin and Rick Perry, who dropped out of the race only a few days ago, and ironically, by a negative question posed at Thursday’s debate by CNN moderator Peter King.
King opened Thursday’s debate with a question about Gingrich’s second wife’s recent allegation that he’d asked for an open marriage. Gingrich lambasted King for opening the debate with the question, earning a rousing ovation from the conservative audience.
Gingrich’s victory in South Carolina leaves the race wide open for more surprises in a campaign with no clear favorite. The next contest is Jan. 31 in Florida, a large state with a winner-take-all delegate count. Romney has been campaigning aggressively in Florida, both on television and on the ground, while libertarian Ron Paul has indicated he will basically skip the state.
Paul, it appears, will campaign through all 50 states, and gather together as many delegates and as much influence for his constitutionalism message as possible. Paul and Romney are the only two whose names appear on the Virginia ballot, a winner take all state with strict filing requirements that the other candidates failed to meet.
The prospects and future for the other candidate, Rick Santorum, is unclear at this moment, but he too was recently the beneficiary of an unexpected surge in Iowa, only three weeks ago.