It is probably no coincidence that CNN, which is hosting tomorrow’s South Carolina debate, hyped the results of its latest poll from that state as evidence “that [Romney’s] advantage over Newt Gingrich is rapidly shrinking.” In fact, the poll taken Jan. 13-17 – a survey period almost entirely before Monday’s debate – has Romney up by 10% over Gingrich, 33% to 23%, with Santorum a distant third with 16%. Yes, that does represent a 9% swing in Newt’s favor since the previous CNN poll two weeks before. However, as Mark Halperin notes, that previous poll was something of an outlier because it showed Romney with a bigger lead than most other polls. In the intervening two weeks, most other polls have shown Romney’s lead increasing – not diminishing.
Despite that caveat, I think that the tail end of the CNN survey may have caught a mini-Gingrich polling boomlet triggered not just by his strong debate performance, but also the impact of the raft of negative advertising that collectively has hit Mitt where it hurts the most: his ample wallet.
It really began, of course, with Romney’s rather indelicate remarks during the New Hampshire campaign regarding his love of pink slips and his own brushes with poverty, both of which became fodder for Newt’s campaign commercials. Then there was the 30-minute docu-ad, funded by a pro-Newt SuperPac, chronicling Romney’s role at Bain Capital. On Monday, in a rather stunning debate gaffe, Mitt equivocated on whether he would release his tax returns, finally saying he might do it sometime in April – when, presumably, he will have the nomination clinched. In the aftermath of that stumble, he acknowledged that most of his income was now taxed at the 15% capital gains rate – all perfectly legit, but less than the rate many Americans pay. He also acknowledged earning additional money through speaking fees, but said it wasn’t very much – if you consider over $300,000 from last year alone not much! Finally, two hours ago ABC released this story with the headline “Romney Parks Millions In Offshore Tax Haven.”
Again, if you read the story, it is quite clear that Romney has done nothing wrong, and that the Cayman Islands are a tax haven for foreign investors – not for Romney. Nonetheless, the cumulative impact of these stories has been to paint Romney as a latter day Gordon Gekko, the Michael Douglas character in the film Wall St. who famously expounded on the virtues of greed.
All this in a state where unemployment is pushing 10%. Needless to say, the beneficiary of the Mitt-as-Gekko storyline has been Newt Gingrich. When John King announced the CNN poll tonight, he hinted that the results of that part of the survey done after Monday’s debate showed much greater gains for Gingrich. Of course, given the limited sample size, we need to be cautious about interpreting the results. We will know more tomorrow, when NBC is supposed to reveal the results of their first post-debate poll. Gingrich – never one to take good news quietly – has now gone on record as saying he will win on Saturday. The only question is by how much. I’m guessing he has additional internal polling results that show him gaining ground.
Meanwhile, as expected, Mitt is not taking this sitting down. He’s rallied the Republican establishment against Newt, with an effort to brand the former Speaker as unreliable, as the following ad shows. .
All this sets up a delicious rematch in tomorrow’s debate, and I haven’t even begun to mention Santorum, whose polls numbers are slipping, or Paul, who certainly is looking to rebound. One area that has gotten a bit of media play again is Newt’s relatively moderate stance on immigration, which may serve him well looking ahead to Florida and Nevada, but which will not play well in South Carolina. I expect Romney to counterpunch on both these themes in tomorrow’s debate.
South Carolina: It’s Gekko vs. the Newt in the Battle To be Lizard King*
Last May Newt Gingrich’s announcement that he was running for president set off a wave of media criticism which collectively suggested his candidacy was D.O.A. The withering attacks by press and pundits reminded me of how the members of Delta House reacted when Kent “Flounder” Dorfman’s face went on the screen as a prospective pledge:
Now that I think of it, Newt looks a little like Dorfman. But I digress. At the time, (in true Otter fashion!), I wrote a blog post suggesting that the experts’ efforts to dismiss Gingrich’s candidacy were premature. In my words: “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…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…. 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.”
I concluded: “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.”
At the time, much like Otter’s defense of Dorfman, my post received the online version of a flurry of beer cans. Six months later, however, it looks like a post written by a smart Delta House rush chairman (“damned glad to meet you”). But if I proved prescient last May in warning against dismissing Gingrich’s candidacy, I would be lying if I said I knew he would be leading the pack come mid-December, and that it would be Newt – and not Mitt – who has the greater chance of closing this nomination race out early. (And don’t get me started on my Rick Perry prediction….)
With just a few hours to go before tonight’s latest, and most important, Republican debate (and I’ll be live blogging it at 9 eastern time), it’s worth analyzing why Newt is leading the pack to head Delta House…er…win the Republican nomination. In a word, it is the debates. In this excellent Newsweek article chronicling his comeback, Gingrich acknowledges that his rise was based largely on his debate performance, combined with a good deal of luck in the questions, and questioners, he received during the early debates. Gingrich recognized early on that the audience for these debates consisted not of party leaders and opinion makers, but of disaffected rank-and-file Republicans who were the vanguard of the Tea Party movement. And when he took on Chris Wallace for the tone of his question during an early debate – he chided Wallace for asking a “Mickey Mouse” question about Newt’s staff leaving him and received thunderous applause – Gingrich had the good sense to realize that attacking the media, and not fellow Republicans, was his route to the top.
But it took more than this. In most years, Newt would still have been shut out of the Delta House pledge process. But he benefitted this election cycle by the proliferation of Republican debates. Much like Obama, who in 2008 was forced to use caucuses to attract delegates and much needed media coverage because he couldn’t beat Clinton in the big primary states, Gingrich made a virtue of necessity by using the debates to force the media to provide coverage of him that he couldn’t afford to buy on his own. But this strategy required multiple debates, and the cooperation of the other candidates. And they did cooperate. Romney once again proved unable to demonstrate to Republicans that he possesses any sense of authenticity. The early not-Romney candidates faltered under the unyielding glare of the media spotlight. Meanwhile, Newt remained just under the radar, blasting the media, adhering to Reagan’s 11th amendment, and drawing on his years of experience and policy wonkiness to climb to the top of the polls.
Newt’s rise is a reminder why the nominating process is so unpredictable, and why pundits were wrong to write him off. Simply put, unlike the general election race, political scientists can’t really use previous nomination races as a basis for predicting what will happen this time around. There are simply too many changes – in candidates, but also in venues, and rules and other institutional factors, to think that today’s nominating contest will follow the patterns of previous ones. Whenever a book or article comes out presuming to be the definitive work explaining how the nominating process works – the party decides! – events invariably prove that the conventional wisdom is outdated. To be sure, there are some basic rules of thumb that seem to hold for most nominations most of the time, but these aren’t really precise enough to generate accurate predictions very early in the game. Remember – I said not to dismiss Newt. I didn’t say he’d win.
And that leads to tonight’s critical debate. The media, finally, recognizes what you have heard from me for several weeks now: that Newt’s candidacy is for real, and that his support is not going to follow the same arc we saw with Bachmann, Cain and Perry. This is not to say that the Republican Party establishment and opinion makers are happy with Newt’s ascendancy – they continue to predict his imminent demise and they are actively working to make that happen. They may yet succeed. But if it Newt’s candidacy does implode, I predict it will have little to do with issues related to Newt’s personal “baggage”. As I noted in an earlier post, even social conservatives are focused on the economy in this election cycle, and not on cultural issues. And Newt’s skeletons have long since been exhumed from the closest. If Bill Clinton’s bimbo eruptions couldn’t derail his presidential bid (or even his presidency – remember, he was most popular during the impeachment and Senate trial), I doubt Gingrich’s personal travails will be his downfall. Nor do I think the ethics charges, or the Fannie Mae lobbying, or the money he earned after leaving politics, is going to matter very much to rank-and-file Republicans seeking to beat Obama.
No, if Gingrich is to fall, the other Republican candidates – especially Romney – must work to topple him. That means stepping up tonight to begin pressuring Gingrich on his publicly espoused policy views which are both all over the place and in many instances very moderate. For example, wasn’t he for global warming before he was against it (and what about that Pelosi ad)? What are his views on immigration? Newt has a rich and quite public policy record, and Republicans should have a field day pointing out inconsistencies tonight. They need to target Newt and keep him on the defensive for the full hour. It will help that there are only six candidates in the mix tonight.
These attacks, however, likely won’t be enough on their own to bring Newt down. For that to occur, Newt has to make a slip or two in reaction to the pressure. He has to stumble, either by twisting himself into a policy conundrum or lashing out at his accusers (Stop lying about my record!) or both. And this is where it gets interesting: has Newt really matured? Is this the new Newt – wiser, more humble, and more thoughtful – that has been advertised? Have the years in the political wilderness really mellowed him? Is Callista a calming presence? Has Catholicism changed his moral compass?
Tonight, I expect the sharpest exchange of views in a Republican debate so far, and the most focused attack on Newt and his record. And what does Newt think of all this? I have to believe he’s thinking this:
Tonight. National television on ABC at 9 o’clock: the Delta House pledges convene once more. Don’t miss it. And remember, I’m not making any predictions – but Republicans need the dues.
If, as all signs indicate, Herman (The Herminator) Cain terminates his campaign tomorrow, this is likely more good news for Gingrich. That is because, as I suggested in this earlier post, most of the survey data suggests that a significant plurality of Cain’s supporters will throw their allegiance to the Newtster. Already the Des Moines Register is hyping a poll of likely Iowa caucus voters, to be released tomorrow, that shows Cain’s support dropping into single digits, down from a high of 23% last October and this is before Cain will have announced the end of his campaign. What the news story does not say is whether Newt has continued gaining in Iowa, but I’m guessing that will be the lead when the poll is released. If so, whither Mitt? And will Paul continue to draw his 12%? Stay tuned as I’ll be on with the results as soon as they are posted.
If tomorrow’s Iowa poll does indicate that Newt is widening his lead, it will be fascinating to see how the media spins this. Because so far, the mainstream bloggers and their media counterparts are simply not buying into the Gingrich polling results. The prevailing sentiment is captured in Dana Milbank’s Washington Post column from a couple of weeks ago titled, “Why Gingrich Won’t Last”. (See also Michael Tomasky’s article here.) Since these columns were published, Gingrich has widened his lead in national polls and in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida. And yet today, a poll of the National Journal’s insiders indicates that most them doubt Newt’s staying power. So, for that matter, do you. To date none of the predictions submitted have Newt winning this nomination. Instead, all of you continue to put your money on Romney, despite the fact that he hasn’t broken 25% outside of New Hampshire in this, his second time around the track. (By the way, that leaves the prediction field wide open for those Not-Romney advocates!)
Here’s why I think Newt may actually win Iowa. First, although it is true he doesn’t have much of a ground game there (he only opened his Iowa headquarters on Wednesday, although plans are in the works for an additional 6 offices), he has used his surge in the polls to begin raking in some big money. According to Gingrich aides, his campaign took in the same amount of money this past month as it did in the previous half year, and it has raised $5.5 million so far in this fourth quarter, compared to $2.9 million raised through the end of September. And while it is true that he only has seven staff members in Iowa, Romney has about the same number, although the Mittster has much more money.
And while he hasn’t visited the state as frequently as Bachmann or Santorum, he has been there many more times than Romney. Interestingly, as this map shows, Newt has focused most of his visits in the major media markets, particularly Des Moines, reflecting his emphasis on stretching the dollar by relying on free media as much as possible. (The dots are where he’s visited – bigger dots mean more visits. All data from the Des Moines campaign tracker.)
Now compare that to Santorum’s visits.
And now Bachmann’s.
As you can see, Santorum and to a lesser extent Bachmann have opted for the more traditional meet and greet strategy by criss-crossing the state much more than Gingrich. And that, I think, is going to help Gingrich because both Santorum and Bachmann are vying for the same voters, and thus are likely to split the social conservative vote in contrast to 2008, when it all went to Huckabee. Of course, critics contend that Romney will use his money to flood Iowa with supporters come January who will go door-to-door to bring out the caucus vote. Maybe, but I can’t help remember similar predictions for Howard Dean in 2004 that proved wildly optimistic. He also flooded Iowa with volunteers, and they proved a major problem since many of them didn’t have the foggiest understanding of Iowan’s concerns.
The wildcard here is Paul, who some say has the strongest and most committed ground game in Iowa. The problem for him is that he seems to max out at about 15% of the vote. Let’s say he pulls in 15% and Romney, by dint of his ground game and money, gets 25%. Assuming Santorum and Bachmann split the conservative vote at, say, 8% and 12% respectively, and Perry pulls in 10%, Newt could win this thing with only 30% of the vote. That’s not implausible, particularly if he picks up most of Cain’s backers. (Warning: back of the envelope musings – you shouldn’t wager on these numbers.)
Thirty days and counting. The next two Republican debates may prove crucial. Meanwhile, what of Herman Cain?
He’s paying the ferryman to take him across the river….let’s hope that will ease the pain.
Another day, another set of encouraging poll results for Newt, and discouraging ones for Mitt. This time an automated Rasmussen poll of likely Republican voters nationwide has Newt handily beating the rest of the field with 38% compared to Mitt’s second-place 17%. This is Newt’s largest lead in any nationwide survey so far. (I’m not going to start parsing the internals of the various polls this early in the process – you’ll get plenty of that later on.) And it simply adds to his polling momentum – the RealClear Politics composite polling average shows Newt’s survey support (he is in green) heading north, while Mitt (purple) and the Herminator (red) go South.
As I noted in an earlier post, although I’ve been touting Newt’s debate-based surge for some time now, the media-driven conventional wisdom has been slow to adjust to events on the ground. Only now are they showing signs that they recognize that Newt’s polling arc is not likely to follow the same pattern as that exhibited by previous “Not Mitt” candidates. In their defense, however, the speed of ascent, and his evident staying power, took even the Newtster by surprise. In an hour long interview – more like an extended “infomercial” – with conservative talk show host Sean Hannity before an appreciative South Carolina audience last night, Gingrich admitted that his intended strategy had been to stay in the race until South Carolina, where he then hoped to make his move with a strong showing. Instead, he is now the undisputed frontrunner.
Which raises the question: did he peak too soon? And what does Mitt intend to do about it? I suggested yesterday that it was time for Mitt to put up his, er, dukes and start directly targeting Newt. Media reports from today suggest that Mitt and his advisers are finally recognizing the difficulty of running a classic front-runner’s race when by all indications you are no longer the front runner. Indeed, as Newt put it last night, the race has turned quickly from Mitt versus non-Mitt to Newt vs. non-Newt – with Mitt in real danger of not being the non-Newt. But, how to respond? Evidently Mitt and his Merry Mittsters are debating how to take on Gingrich directly without mussing Mitt’s hair.
While Mitt dithers, Ron Paul isn’t waiting, as the following campaign ad (hat tip to Peter) indicates (cue dramatic music!):
Despite the annoying music, the Paul video succinctly spells out the major talking points that will undoubtedly be at the heart of any future attacks on Gingrich’s record: his work for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, his more moderate stance on many issues, his ad with Pelosi recognizing global warming (a “mistake” Gingrich openly confessed last night), his support of health care mandates, his criticism of the Ryan plan as “right wing social engineering” and, of course, his messy personal life.
To this point, Newt seems to have developed a set of talking points designed to respond to these criticisms. It remains to be seen whether those talking points will be enough to blunt the impact of these attacks which are sure to escalate in intensity in the next few weeks. As of now, Mitt still seems reluctant to muss his hair with direct attacks on Newt, so he may rely on surrogates like Chris Christie to carry his dirty water for him, and hope that the other Republican hopefuls will follow Paul’s lead and launch their own broadside at Newt’s very broad side. In the meantime, I expect to see lots of Romney ads featuring his wife and family (no messy personal life there!) and constant references to his private sector experience. The problem is that this may not be enough to overcome the persistent skepticism among Republican voters regarding Romney’s own inconsistencies – a skepticism that dates back at least four years and which seems to have set the Mittster’s ceiling of support at about 25% of likely Republican voters.
Meanwhile, how will Gingrich adjust to front-runner status? Critics are waiting for him to implode – to engage in the self-centered, petty behavior that contributed to his downfall as House Speaker. To this point, however, we’ve seen a new, wiser, more mature Newt, one who while still showing flashes of smugness and intellectual condescension, has also managed to come across as mellower and more introspective. Already he has instructed his staff to avoid critiquing Romney, continuing his steady adherence to Reagan’s 11th commandment. Meanwhile, he may have his sights set on a bigger target: a poll released today shows that for the first time Newt has pulled even with the President in a national survey of likely voters.
So, which is it? Will Newt solidify his lead in the next month in preparation for the Iowa caucuses? Or is he destined to follow the downward trajectory experienced by the other non-Mitt’s who temporarily shot to the top of the pack. Are we seeing a new Newt, or will he relapse into the bombastic bomb-thrower of yore, as critics contend (and hope!)
I know what Newt thinks – he told ABC’s Jake Tapper this afternoon that “I’m going to be the nominee. It’s very hard not to look at the recent polls and think that the odds are very high I’m going to be the nominee.”
Is Newt right? Are we looking at a Gingrich-Obama slugfest this fall? If not, then who will be the Republican nominee? It’s time to stake out a claim. At stake: one “It’s the Fundamentals, Stupid” t-shirt to the person who can tell me who will win the Republican nomination. To make it more interesting, you must tell me the order in which the 8 Republican candidates will finish, based on the candidate’s delegate totals when the race finishes or the candidate drops out.
As the vultures begin to circle over Herman Cain’s candidacy, one has to wonder where his supporters will go if, as the media speculation suggests, Cain will end his presidential bid. Early indications are that Newt Gingrich will be the primary benefactor if Cain drops out of the race. According to the pollsters at Public Policy polling Gingrich is the second choice of Cain voters at both the national level, and in key states. Discussing Gingrich’s ascendancy in the polls, PPP writes: “Gingrich’s leads are a result of Cain’s support finally starting to really fall apart. For an 8 week period from the end of September through last week Cain was over 20% in every single poll we did at the state or national level. Over that period of time we also repeatedly found that Gingrich was the second choice of Cain voters. Now that Cain has slipped below that 20% threshold of support he had consistently held, Gingrich is gaining.” This suggests that if Cain does suspend his campaign, a significant proportion of his support will move to Gingrich, bolstering his front-runner status nationally and, perhaps more importantly, in the early nominating contests.
If so, this raises an interesting possibility – as the pundits continue to debate whether Romney can deliver the knockout blow and clinch the Republican nomination within the first few primaries, or will instead have to endure a rather protracted battle before finally emerging as the Republican nominee, events are conspiring to put Gingrich, and not Romney, in the better position to close this race out. As this Gallup poll indicates, Mitt’s “positive intensity score” has declined, while Newt’s are on the rise:
In short, it’s not clear to me that Mitt is any position to even consider delivering a knockout blow, although the Republican establishment is desperately trying to make his nomination appear inevitable. In fact, based on the latest polling data, it is conceivable that if Gingrich can parley his recent rise in the polls into the resources need to put boots on the ground in Iowa, he might actually win that event come January 3. That, in turn, might give him enough momentum to finish a strong second to Romney in New Hampshire the following week, which the media might conceivably spin as a defeat for the Mittster. Then it is on to South Carolina, where Gingrich currently leads in the polls, and where he expects to do well. If he wins South Carolina, Mitt would go into Florida needing a victory. Should he lose there, it is possible that the Republican race would be over – with Newt, and not Mitt, as the nominee.
This is all speculative, of course, and as I have repeatedly cautioned, nomination races – unlike the general election – are inherently less predictable. Moreover, we need to keep in mind that the Republicans have changed the manner in which they allocate delegates; rather than the winner take all format that they have used in the past, they have opted to adopt a proportional allocation system this time around, at least for the early nominating contests. This should make it harder for a front runner to deliver a knockout blow, so conceivably Mitt can survive early losses and hope that he will prevail in the long run due to his superior resources. But I can’t help but think that events are far outstripping the conventional wisdom as embodied in the prevailing sentiment among the pundits that Mitt is the default nominee. While the pundits contemplate how Mitt’s inevitable march to the coronation will play out, Republican voters seem determined to write their own script. And right now Newt – not Mitt – has the leading role.