Are we seeing the New Newt?
Longtime readers of this blog will likely not be surprised by Newt Gingrich’s rise to the top of the Republican leaderboard, at least in national polls; I have been touting his debate performance for some time now. Of greater interest, I think, is how the punditocracy, particularly those on the Left, have reacted to Newt’s ascendancy. They have been unusually quick to dismiss Gingrich’s “surge” (it hasn’t been a surge, but never mind) as a temporary phenomenon, similar to what we saw with Bachmann, Perry, and then Cain. Gingrich, they would have us believe, is simply the latest candidate to audition for the “I’m not Mitt” role, and he too will flunk this casting call. Thus, the American Prospect’s Jamelle Bouie flatly states that Gingrich is not going to be the Republican nominee, a sentiment shared by many others. Michael Tomasky, in dismissing Gingrich’s latest polling results, claims ”This Gingrich boomlet is the same thing as the Michele Bachmann boomlet and the Rick Perry boomlet. It’s just people not wanting to say yes to Romney.”
In my view, these analyses that place Gingrich in the Bachmann-Perry-Cain box are wrong. While it is true that his support in polls has gone up in part because of the current vacuum within the anti-Mitt category, Newt’s candidacy differs in significant ways from the previous Tea Party favorites. To begin, Gingrich’s rise in the polls is no “surge”. In contrast to the previous “anti-Mitts”, Newt has gained his front-runner status the old-fashioned way: he’s earned grudging support from conservatives through a series of stellar debate performances, rather than through the overhyped-straw poll results that a news-starved media used to create the Bachmann and Cain boomlets. Anyone who has closely watched these debates (and I have) knows that in a side-by-side comparison with the other 7 candidates, Newt consistently wins on both substance and style points. Republican activists who are paying attention to the debates understand that no one else has performed at his level. And we should not be surprised by this. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Newt, as a former 20-year congressman including four as Speaker (arguably the most powerful domestic post in the nation), has more experience on the national stage than any politician – in both parties – running for president today and he has honed his media skills as a political commentator during his years roaming the political wilderness after leaving office in relative disgrace. So he brings both a deep knowledge of national issues and politics, and a flair for presenting it. Marry that with a crowd-pleasing applause line based on attacking the media, and we have the makings of an effective candidacy.
So, will Newt win the nomination? I have consistently described him as a longshot – but a longshot whose chances are as good as any of the other candidates not named Mitt. Nonetheless, while I think efforts to paint Gingrich as the next Bachmann or Cain are driven more by ideology and a deep-seated dislike of Gingrich than by reasoned analysis (but then, that’s why you come here), there are still significant reasons why Newt remains a long shot. First, we need to remind ourselves that Newt is not alone atop the leaderboard. Nationally, the latest polls (see here and here), have him running in a statistical tie with Romney. The Pollster.com aggregate polling chart, which is designed not to overreact to the latest poll results, has Newt climbing, but at this point he still lags behind Cain and Romney.
Second, Newt carries significant personal baggage which, now that he is one of the frontrunners, is soon to be revisited by the media. This includes a messy personal life, in which he allegedly informed his first wife that he was divorcing her while she was in the hospital receiving cancer treatments, and who has confessed to having an affair with his soon-to-be-third wife while simultaneously spearheading impeachment charges against Bill Clinton. Gingrich has admitted to his personal shortcomings (while defending the impeachment) but for many people this is hypocrisy at its worst. The key question here is whether Gingrich’s personal life has been so thoroughly vetted that he is, in a sense, already inoculated against further damage. At the very least, one expects him to have a better answer than did Cain, when the inevitable character questions arise at the next debate (which they will. By the way, the debate is next Tuesday, and yes, I’ll be live blogging it as always.) He will also undoubtedly face media criticism for his role as a lobbyist – er, consultant – for Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the two government-backed mortgage companies that reportedly paid Gingrich significant dollars for his advice. And the stories regarding his charge account at Tiffany’s, his lack of organizational discipline and the other usual suspects will likely be resurrected as well.
The key difference between Gingrich and the previous “I’m not Mitt” candidates, then, is that Gingrich is already a known quantity, with very high name recognition. As a result, it is likely that his currently “high intensity” score (the percent who have strongly favorable opinions of him minus those with strongly unfavorable opinions), now the best in the Republican field, is likely to be more resilient to the type of negative news coverage he is about to receive.
So, while Newt’s candidacy carries extensive baggage, by itself the recycling of stories about Newt’s personal life is unlikely to have nearly the impact it would on a relative unknown, like Cain, Perry or Bachmann. The bigger worry for Newt’s supporters, I think, is that Newt at this point does not have the money nor campaign infrastructure to turn polling support into delegates. So, while I expect him to remain atop the leader board based on polls through the invisible primary season, it is an open question whether that support will translate into votes in the Iowa caucuses come Jan. 3. Traditionally, caucuses require boots on the ground, which in turn cost money, and lots of it. Although Newt is undoubtedly seeing an influx of cash in recent months, it remains to be seen how quickly it can be used to put a campaign in place in Iowa. I think Newt needs to do well there – at least a top three finish within shouting distance of the leader – in order to remain competitive when the race moves South to South Carolina and Florida. (I’m guessing New Hampshire’s outcome won’t have much impact on Newt’s standing).
In the long run, however, Newt has a potential Achilles heel that I view as the more serious threat to his candidacy: he’s the smartest guy in the race, and he knows it. At this stage, it’s not clear to me whether Newt’s years in the political wilderness after stepping down as House Speaker in 1998 have matured him. To his credit, so far he has positioned himself as the Republican’s elder statesmen, someone who obeys Reagan’s 11th commandment not to criticize fellow Republicans and who has consistently resisted taking the media bait to get down into the campaign mud. But can he continue to take the high road when he finds the target on his back? Or will he revert to being the Newt of old: petulant, with an ego that is easily bruised and who is prone to overestimate his own capabilities and dismiss his opponents’? I can say this – he certainly hasn’t lost his confidence, or his swagger. And that’s not necessarily a good thing.