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.