01/22/2012 06:57 pm ET Updated Mar 23, 2012

Did Economic Populism Win South Carolina for Newt Gingrich?

Perhaps Mitt Romney's fumble in South Carolina was not entirely unpredictable. Romney finished a distant fourth in the state in 2008, behind even Fred Thompson. Out of the four early-voting GOP states, South Carolina always represented Romney's greatest challenge.

But why, if Romney was not to prevail, was it Newt Gingrich -- and not Rick Santorum -- who benefited?

Out of all of the non-Mitt Romney candidates to escape from New Hampshire, Santorum may have been in the most logical position to consolidate opposition support. A week before South Carolinians voted, a group of more than 100 prominent evangelical leaders announced their decision to back Santorum. Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, raised the ire of a host of conservative opinion leaders after launching vehement attacks focusing on Romney's career at private equity firm Bain Capital.

On Jan. 13, the Wall Street Journal editorial page denounced Gingrich for launching "crude and damaging caricatures of modern business and capitalism." Rush Limbaugh compared Gingrich to Elizabeth Warren. South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, who boasts a reputation as a crucial Tea Party power broker, accused Gingrich of sounding like a Democrat.

Despite these criticisms, Gingrich's standing in South Carolina polls rose as his attacks on Bain Capital grew stronger. On Jan. 17, Talking Points Memo's Poll Average pegged Gingrich at 24.6 percent, with Romney at 33.2 percent. On Jan. 19, Gingrich was at 33.9 percent and Romney was at 28.8 percent. On primary day, Gingrich was at 35.7 percent and Romney was at 26.4 percent.

And Rick Santorum? On Jan. 15, Santorum was ahead of Gingrich in TPM's polling average, with 22.4 percent to Gingrich's 21.1 percent. Santorum, however, did not join Gingrich's criticisms of Romney. "I don't want to stand here and be a defender of Mitt Romney," Santorum told a Republican town hall audience in West Columbia, South Carolina. "But unfortunately even some in our party now, even some running for president will engage in with respect to capitalism. It is bad enough for Barack Obama to blame folks in business for causing problems in this country. It's one other thing for Republicans to join him."

It is important to note that Gingrich's attacks on Romney's "vulture capitalism" were not incidental to his overall South Carolina campaign. They were his South Carolina campaign. Winning Our Future, a super PAC supporting Gingrich and operated by Sheldon Adelson, spent at least $3.4 million on advertising portraying Romney as a Gordon Gekko-like figure. The same super PAC also put out a 30 minute documentary titled "When Mitt Romney Came to Town," highlighting takeovers by Bain Capital that led to plant closures and layoffs.

Even after the Republican establishment came out against Gingrich's assaults on Bain Capital, Gingrich was undeterred. On Jan. 17, Gingrich told a business audience that criticisms of his campaign tactics were "baloney." "The Bain model," he Gingrich explained, "is to go in at a very low price, borrow an immense amount of money, pay Bain an immense amount of money and leave. I'll let you decide if that's really good capitalism. I think that's exploitation." Gingrich would repeat this same line almost verbatim during Thursday's Republican debate.

It is likely too early to separate correlation from causation. It is possible that Gingrich's attacks on Romney's business record had little to do with his ultimate victory in South Carolina (although an ABC News exit poll does suggest that Romney's career at Bain Capital did at least hurt him with low-income voters). The same applies to Santorum's decision to hold his fire, and his campaign's decline. But even the fact of mere correlation has important and fascinating implications for the type of general election campaign Democrats may run -- and the sorts of policy stands political candidates should feel confident taking in the near future.