I, of the Newt

The roll out of Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign, beginning with his May 11 announcement of his candidacy, has not gone well. His claim, during his appearance on Meet the Press, that Paul Ryan’s plan to reform Medicare was “right-wing social engineering” prompted a backlash from fiscal conservatives whose support Newt will need if he hopes to win the Republican nomination. Chastened, Gingrich walked slightly back from his initial criticism, but not before the media had a field day emphasizing the rift between Gingrich and the party’s presumed power brokers.

This misstep was but one factor that led many journalists, bloggers and pundits to essentially declare Gingrich’s candidacy D.O.A.   Jonathan Bernstein’s Washington Post column is not atypical: “Newt Gingrich? For president? C’mon. He is Sarah Palin without the strong core of enthusiastic fans — and with a marital history worse than that of John Edwards. There’s no real chance that he’s going to be the Republican nominee for president.”

What are we to make of these criticisms?  Polling data seems to provide solid evidence that Gingrich’s candidacy is, indeed, a long shot. Obama leads Gingrich by 16% on average in the four polls taken in the last month that match them up. Indeed, Obama has led Gingrich by double digits in 12 of 14 head-to-head polls taken since the start of 2011.  But these head-to-head polls are essentially meaningless this far in advance of the 2012 election.  Keep in mind that none of the Republican candidates – declared and undeclared – match up very well with Obama in head-to-head polling right now.  The closest is probably Romney, but he typically trails Obama by some 3-7% in most surveys.

At this point, however, Republican presidential candidates are not trying to beat Obama – they are trying to beat other Republicans.   To do so, they need to survive the invisible primary – the period from now until the start of the actual nomination process in early 2012.  That requires staying within the top tier of candidates, as identified by the media, for the next nine months.  The media defines candidate viability largely based on two factors: doing well in the polls, and showing significant fundraising capability.  There’s no reason to suggest Gingrich can’t stay within the top 2-4 candidates based on these criteria. Then comes the actual nominating process, beginning most likely with  Iowa and New Hampshire.  Can Gingrich do well in these contests?  At this point, it is impossible to say.  But his chances are no worse than any of the other major Republican candidates.  Nationally, the latest Gallup survey of Republican and Republican-leaning individuals puts him third, behind Romney and Palin, in the race for the Republican nomination.  Again, at this stage, polling largely reflects name recognition – see Trump, Donald – but it means he is probably going to be viewed as viable by the media at least for the next few months.  Looking ahead to Iowa, with Huckabee out, Gingrich is likely to be among the top three candidates at this point, and if he comes out of there no lower than third he has a good shot of being competitive in New Hampshire.

Keep in mind that Republicans’ now fractured support will eventually coalesce behind someone who will run against Obama in 2012, and whoever that is will have a built-in support of some 45% of the voters from the start – higher if perceptions of the economy do not turn around.  In looking over the likely Republican candidates – Romney, Palin, Pawlenty, Huntsman, Santorum, Giuliani, Cain or Bachmann, I see no one at this point who is without flaws.  But one of them (or some other candidate – Rick Perry?) will win the nomination and immediately accrue considerable support among voters seeking change.

In short, it is far too early to dismiss Gingrich’s candidacy based on the initial bumps on which the media has focused so heavily. Contrary to Charles Krauthammer’s prognosis,  Gingrich remains very much a viable candidate.  And, if things get tough, he can always call on Shakespeare’s Second Witch, whose incantations proved fatal to another national leader:

“Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing,–
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.”

Powerful trouble?  But for whom?  Stay tuned.

Addendum: Add Jim Fallows to the lengthy list of those who think Newt has no chance of winning the presidency.

7 comments

  1. Newt is not D.O.A., but he might as well be. The Obama strategists’ comments are telling here: like yourself, they know they will face a fiercely split electorate with at least 45% support going to any GOP nominee (e.g., 2000, 2004, 2008). They expect a nail-biter, UNLESS the nominee is Gingrich or Palin.

    You have to respect Newt’s ability for independent thought, but this event highlights the key question of this race: can a candidate placate the the right wing to win the nomination AND still be a viable general election candidate? As Professor Johnson noted on election night last year, the GOP caucus has become increasingly conservative over recent decades-a trend that is only likely to continue with the mobilization of the tea party electorate. Prospective nominees will have to throw out red meat to the increasingly conservative electorate, but the real question is can they make it back to the center where general elections are won? Think McCain circa 2008.

    Huntsman 2012!!!

  2. Orion – The ideological discontinuity between the Republican nomination constituency and the general election constituency is a potential problem for Newt – as it is for Huntsman. In talking with reporters who are covering Huntsman closely, they say his aides are arguing that he will slot himself as the moderate with foreign policy credentials in the Republican race, and hope that the field narrows to him and a social conservative such as Bachmann. Then he will become this year’s McCain.

    The problem that I pointed out is that the main issue this election will be the economy, and Huntsman has spent most of the critical period in China, working for Obama. This will not sit well with Republican conservatives. He has to turn that to his advantage by, for example, arguing that he understands how to encourage free trade with China, etc., while explaining his association with Obama

    This just drives home my broader point – there’s no flawless Republican candidate at this point.

  3. Professor Dickinson,

    With regard to Huntsman – While his position working for Obama indeed puts Huntsman in somewhat of a difficult spot positioning himself against the president, wouldn’t this, in some ways, pose some serious problems for Obama potentially running against him? We keep talking about the disadvantages for Huntsman, but what about those for Obama?

    In the intense media environment of the general election, candidates attack each other with extreme intensity as election day looms nearer and nearer. I would think it would be very difficult for Obama to criticize Huntsman in the way that some may see as necessary since Obama himself appointed/hired him! As I see it, It’s a pretty tough sell for Obama to say that Huntsman will not lead the country in the right direction given that Obama appointed him to perhaps the most important diplomatic position in US foreign policy. Why would you appoint someone to be the ambassador of China if you thought his political stance was truly different than your own? Huntsman can pull the patriot public servant card, saying that when your president asks you to represent America the Beautiful, you answer the call no matter what without hesitation (almost the same way that the military obeys the commander-in-chief). I think it’s a much harder sell for Obama in the general election rather than Huntsman, since Obama was the one who took the initiative and made the conscious decision to appoint/”hire” Huntsman.

    Of course, all of this will only be of use to Huntsman if he wins the primaries where Huntsman’s affiliation with Obama will only be a negative in appealing to the base. Who knows – if Huntsman gets as far as the general election, maybe we’ll see a more civil discourse in an Obama-Huntsman competition in which the two candidates appeal to the crucial independent middle, using their partnership a proof of bipartisanship, centrist tendencies, etc. With the media scrutiny and the stakes, of course, I doubt it will be very civil, but it’s an interesting possibility.

    Lastly, let’s all remember that the current order of the AL East (http://espn.go.com/mlb/standings) is the most stabilizing and positive trend in America right now and that any truly legitimate presidential candidate should support this current order.

  4. Will,

    First things first: despite yesterday’s split, the natural equilibrium in the A.L. East continues. Of this all right-thinking Americans can be grateful.

    You make an excellent point that Huntsman’s service as Obama’s ambassador to China cuts both ways; it will be as hard for Obama to disassociate himself from Obama as it will be for Obama to disown Huntsman. But the crucial point is that Huntsman must survive the nominating phase first. It is far too early to make credible projections, but at this early date I think he faces tough slogging. The Tea Party is going to push hard on the economy – Huntsman does have a record he can cite from his five years at Utah’s governor: he instituted tax reform and pushed for school vouchers. But he also backed immigration reform, cap and trade for climate control and civil unions – all anathema to elements in the Republican base. And that’s on top of serving as Obama’s ambassador to China. Does this mean he can’t win the nomination? No. But – and it’s very early to make these projections – he has some high hurdles to clear.

  5. “There’s no reason to suggest Gingrich can’t stay within the top 2-4 candidates”? Sure there is. He’s not very popular among rank-and-file Republicans…his relatively good results in the horse race question are almost certainly just name recognition, and he’ll lose that advantage as the year goes along. His poll numbers among Republicans aren’t very good. More to the point, I think the evidence is strong that Republican elites want no part of him as a presidential nominee.

    More generally, I think you’re giving too much credit in the invisible primary process to the press as independent actors, and too little to the importance of party leaders (even if you think of party leaders, as I do, as broadly defined). Indeed, I think part of the reason why Newt’s rollout went so badly was that a whole lot of people who have worked with the guy don’t want him to succeed, so when he commits a gaffe they’re going to play it up instead of making excuses for him (as is also happening with Palin). It’s possible to win with support from other parts of the party even if Washingtonians aren’t thrilled with you, probably, but it’s not as if Newt has a lot of support among state party organizations, or among activists, or anywhere else that I know of.

    I agree that it’s a mistake to focus on a bad week — I’d guess that every eventual nominee has survived worse weeks. But I can’t see him as a serious threat to Romney or Pawlenty (or Perry).

  6. Jonathan – I think you are absolutely right re: Newt’s name recognition inflating his polling numbers. But, for better or for worse, that’s what the media will use, along with fundraising, to determine candidate viability in the months before the nominating phase officially kicks off. I think you are also correct that Republican party elites don’t want Newt to get the nomination, but I think I probably put less stock than you do in their ability to determine who gets the Republican nomination (see Tea Party, 2010). At this point, if there’s a realistic possibility that he will survive the invisible primary as a top-tier candidate (among the top four) then I don’t think we can dismiss his candidacy out of hand right now. That’s all I’m saying.

    I should be clear that I don’t disagree – as I said in my post – that Newt’s candidacy is a very very long shot, and – right now – I don’t think he’s nearly as strong as Romney. But weaker than Pawlenty? I honestly don’t know. In any case, it’s May – a lot can, and will, happen before January, 2012.

  7. Well, if you put enough “very”s in then perhaps we don’t disagree too much…I guess part of what it comes down to is how relevant the Tea Party nominations are for presidential nominations. My answer, based on Cohen et al. and other party network research (inc. some of my own), is: not very much. Individual House, and even Senate, nominations have low enough stakes that when flukish things happen no one really cares very much; presidential nominations are high stakes, and so when the post-reform system turned out to make flukish results likely, they changed things to prevent that from happening again.

    As for the media…I just don’t think they are nearly as important as independent actors as, say, Polsby thought they were in 1972-1980 (I think he was correct then, but things changed). On pre-Iowa, yes, they’ll look to polling and $$, but they’ll also be influenced by party insiders — after all, they’re heavily discounting Palin now for that reason. Then from Iowa on, I think the evidence shows that the media does as much relaying of party spin as it does independent spinning.

    There’s clearly some of the latter still that can matter, e.g. the media efforts to keep McCain alive vs. Bush in 2000. But I’d say it’s now a minor factor.

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