On the Campaign Trail with Newt Gingrich

Peter van Agtmael—Magnum for TIME
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum for TIME
January 21, 2012. Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich greets supporters at a Chick-fil-A restaurant in Anderson, S.C. on primary day. Gingrich would later beat Mitt Romney to win the S.C. primary.

I arrived in Charlotte, N.C. early on the day of the South Carolina primary and headed straight to Tommy’s Ham House in Greenville. Newt Gingrich was giving an electrifying speech inside as a crowd milled around outside. The previous week I’d covered my first presidential primary in New Hampshire, where many events were disrupted by attention seekers and protesters. Occupy Wall Street supporters came to a Mitt Romney rally and were quickly thrown out by police. At a Ron Paul event, a man with a boot on his head named Vermin Supreme made chicken noises and claimed that if he were elected president, every American would get a pony.

South Carolina was more restrained. There were no active protesters. A lone Ron Paul supporter kept a silent vigil a respectful distance away. Tommy’s Ham House continued to serve breakfast. I didn’t try their famous ham, but their hot cakes were excellent. Gingrich left in a bus with a giant portrait of his face emblazoned on the side. It started pouring and the crowd hid under signs that read, ‘Newt 2012. Rebuilding the America We Love.’

Next, Gingrich stopped at a nearby middle school serving as a voting station. He patiently shook every hand of the assembled crowd, numbering close to a hundred. There were only a few journalists, compared to New Hampshire, where the media often ringed the candidates three or four deep.

One of the last stops of the day was a Gingrich campaign gathering at a Chick-fil-A in Anderson. Like most Gingrich events, it was packed to the brim, with supporters pressing their faces against the restaurant’s windows to get a peek. Sometimes the event locations seemed arbitrary. Why a Chick-fil-A, which was founded in Georgia, instead of a locally-owned business? Another journalist speculated it was because of the widely-promoted Christian values of its founder, Truett Cathy. All the candidates were trying to woo the evangelical base, and nearly everyone at the event was caucasian.

Gingrich would beat Romney to win the South Carolina primary that evening. The victory party that night was restrained, though 1970s and 1980s rock-and-roll classics blared in the packed ballroom. There were a few brief speeches before Gingrich arrived to thank his supporters and attack Barack Obama. Most of the attendees left immediately after the speech was over. I asked where everyone was going and was told the private parties would continue deep into the night.

Peter van Agtmael is a photographer represented by Magnum. His work from Iraq won a World Press Photo award in 2007. More of his work can be seen here.

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