ROCK HILL, S.C. -- The night was full of surprises for York County Republicans.
First, the guy who won was not the guy everyone expected.
“A little bit surprised,” said voter Mike Bodner as he watched returns with the York County GOP at a bar on Herlong Avenue. It was also a short watch party and that was the second surprise of the night.
Newt Gingrich won by such a confident margin that NBC News and others projected him the winner as soon as polls closed at 7 p.m.
“A week from now they may be scratching their heads wondering, ‘What was I thinking,’” said Bodner. “But they’re certainly fired up for this week.”
“I'm somewhat shocked it's called so early,” said Glenn McCall, a York County Republican leader who is also on the Republican National Committee. “This is what we wanted--for the races to be extended.”
McCall believes Gingrich’s win will help him stretch his run to Super Tuesday in March. The new system of delegates put in place this year allows candidates to split delegates based on how many Congressional districts they win.
Gingrich won 11 delegates outright and will split 14 other delegates, getting two for each Congressional district he wins. Late Saturday, the Associated Press gave Gingrich credit for 23 of the 25 delegates.
A strong win, said McCall, will keep Gingrich in the race longer.
But the question on most voters’ minds is how Gingrich pulled out a win in a state where some polls found almost a third of voters were still undecided at mid-week before the election.
Winthrop University political science professor Scott Huffmon said it boils down to one word: Debates. Voters had seen so many debates being held, that they tuned out what was being said and instead focused on how it was being said.
“What matters is performance, and when Newt is on there's no better debater,” said Huffmon.
Huffmon said Gingrich reached out and grabbed undecided voters in the gut with two solid debate performances this week.
“He tapped the anger and the passion of the most conservative of the conservative, which are primary voters of South Carolina,” he said.
Huffmon said Romney has had steady support all along, but failed to ignite passion in voters, so therefore failed to bring in new ones. Gingrich did the opposite.
"I think there were a lot of people walking into their voting places going, ‘Am I going to go with my head or my heart?’ and I think their gut, their passion, their anger, won out in the end."