Did you hear that noise this morning? It was the sound of heads in the punditocracy exploding in reaction to Newt Gingrich’s “surprise” win in South Carolina yesterday. The new – and wrong – post-South Carolina conventional wisdom is captured in Sean Trende’s assessment at RealClearPolitics: “This vote was an utter repudiation of Romney, and it absolutely will be repeated in state after state if something doesn’t change the basic dynamic of the race.”
No, what this vote repudiated was the media’s misguided belief that Romney was a strong candidate in the first place, one who was on the cusp of closing this race out in overwhelming fashion. In truth, what the first three contests have confirmed is what I’ve been telling you all along: Mitt Romney is a weak candidate – one who has never demonstrated in five years of running for president that he could broaden his support beyond the country club/Wall St. set.
Before developing these points, let me summarize the state of the race as it actually stands, as opposed to where the pundits would have us believe it stands. First, Gingrich won a decisive victory last night; with 100% of the precincts reporting he finished with 40.4% of the vote, easily besting Mitt who won 27.8%. Santorum ran a distant third at 17% and Paul took 13%. (In a blow to Colbert fans, Herman Cain won only about 6,000 votes – or 1.1% – of the vote.) In contrast to the two states won by Santorum and Romney, turnout was up by more than 30% (about 601,000 voters) over the 2008 total (about 450,000) – a sign that Gingrich energized the Tea Party base. Gingrich probably won 23 of the 25 delegates at stake, with Mitt holding on to take the two in the first congressional district that includes Charleston. (Note, however, that congressional district lines in South Carolina may yet change, pending a court challenge after the 2010 redistricting.) That puts Newt in the lead in the all-important delegate count, 27-17, over Mitt (note that Iowa has not awarded delegates yet, contrary to what some media outlets may imply.)
Now on to the pundits’ assessments. They are, as a whole, predictably overreacting to yesterday’s results (sometimes in hilarious fashion). Here’s Andrew Sullivan’s take: “This is the Republican crack-up people have been predicting for years. Gingrich is on a roll. I think he can win this – and then lose this in a way that could change America history. That is a brief impression in one moment of time. But I cannot see Romney winning this at this point. They are just not into him, and he’s an awful candidate.” Taegan Goddard opines at Political Wire: “By any measure, it’s a devastating loss to frontrunner Mitt Romney.” And this from the online newspaper TheHill: “Gingrich’s victory makes for many more uncertainties in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, which had seemed like a foregone conclusion a few days ago when Mitt Romney was in the lead in South Carolina polls.”
You get the picture. In a span of a bit less than a week the conventional wisdom has gone from planning Romney’s coronation to contemplating “the Republican crack-up” in the wake of Romney’s “devastating” loss. Neither perspective is correct. I’ve gone on at some length in previous posts to point out Romney’s weaknesses, as indicated by the results in Iowa and New Hampshire. Now is the time to remember his strengths. First, he is not an “awful” candidate – he is a very good candidate, one the majority of Republican voters consistently view in favorable terms. He has loads of money, knows how to run a campaign and is, in fact, a solid debater who generally does well in these formats. The problem is that he has never demonstrated the capacity to win over conservative Republican voters for reasons that I want to develop in a separate post. For now, let me call it his “authenticity” problem: Republicans do not know what his core values really are because those beliefs seem, based on his past record, to be somewhat malleable.
What about Gingrich? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a candidate held in such contempt by the media and party establishment. And that is precisely what is fueling his success among Tea Party activists and the Republican base. In a significant ironic twist, the Establishment’s efforts to excommunicate Gingrich for his past heresies have simply strengthened his appeal to Republican nomination voters. Here’s a career politician who is making an effective case that he’s the candidate of change! One thing that has become increasingly clear to me is that the Establishment’s collective disdain for Newt as a person (the term “blowhard” is frequently used) has distorted their assessment of his candidacy. Because they don’t like Newt, they can’t see how anyone else can support him.
So where does this race stand? Exactly where it stood a week ago. Lost in the handwringing over Mitt’s “collapse” in South Carolina is that his support there really never wavered from the 28-31% range. What happened in the end is that as South Carolina voters started paying attention, beginning with Monday’s debate, they moved to their natural inclination, which was for most of them to support Newt. And so he rose in the polls to the expected equilibrium outcome. But Mitt didn’t really lose all that much support post-debate. We shouldn’t lose sight of this. It bears repeating: South Carolina is to Newt as New Hampshire was to Mitt: his backyard state.
In the next several days I’ll begin my Florida assessment. But I want to end here by raising a somewhat speculative point. I once thought that the advent of the “blogosphere”, with its myriad political outlets, would broaden and diversify debate beyond the cloistered Washington-based conventional wisdom that dominated the pre-internet political discussions. I’m increasingly convinced, however, that this hasn’t happened. Instead, the blogosphere has become dominated by its own talking (writing?) heads who have integrated themselves into the media establishment, and whose control over twitter feeds and on-line posts has exacerbated the problems associated with the old media. The pundits now flit from online to talk show, spreading their misguided, often partisan-based analysis. New conventional wisdoms are created, disseminated, accepted and then rejected with increasing rapidity. The blogosphere hasn’t so much improved debate as it has accentuated its worse tendencies. As I read through the various online assessments of the race after Iowa and New Hampshire, and watched the talk shows, it amazed me just how wrong these assessments were – spectacularly wrong, in many cases. The numbers, at least as I was reading them (and reporting them to you) weren’t supporting most of the claims I was hearing.
Look, although I’ll milk my South Carolina prediction for as long as you let me, long time readers know that I’m in no position to claim infallibility in these issues. (Remember my Scott Brown prediction!) But there’s something to be said for acknowledging how uncertain our assessments are. I don’t think we get enough people saying “I really don’t know what is going to happen, so I’ll give you my partisan preference, and we can all pretend it is rooted in something more substantial than my hopes and prayers. But it’s really not.”
With that in mind, let me make my prediction: Patriots 24, Ravens 20. By the way, that’s a guess based on my hopes and prayers.