Tag Archives: Republican debates

Why Is Gingrich Still In The Race? There’s Really No Debate

Today one more South Carolina poll, this one sponsored by Clemson University, was released and it showed Newt Gingrich with a 6% advantage over Mitt Romney, 32-26%, with Paul in 3rd with 11% and Santorum at 9%.  The survey was in field on Jan. 18-19 – before last night’s debate, and it is the latest in a series of polls that show Gingrich inching into the lead there.  If the latest polling trends hold, Gingrich is poised to win tomorrow.  Romney, for his part, has begun downplaying expectations in his public comments, a sure sign that his internal polling is showing the same result.

If Newt does win tomorrow, I expect the media pundits – who have been loudly proclaiming the inevitability of Romney’s nomination – to now reverse direction and suddenly begin reassessing his candidacy.  At the same time, those who were formerly criticizing Gingrich’s candidacy will suddenly begin touting his hidden strengths.  Before that happens, let me issue two cautionary points.

First, Romney was never as strong a candidate as the media, with all its blather about the first non-incumbent to win Iowa and New Hampshire, etc., etc., made him out to be.  I trust I don’t have to repeat the reasons why that is the case.   The summary answer is that after five years running for president, he has not expanded his coalition to show he can win over conservatives.

But we should also realize that in many respects South Carolina is Newt’s ideal state.  Indeed, when Gingrich was plotting his nomination strategy last summer, South Carolina was always meant to be his breakout state because its demographics were most favorable to him.   That he is poised to do well here only seems surprising in light of the unexpected surge and decline in his polling support in November and December.   That initial surge triggered the barrage of negative ads and media scrutiny that brought Newt’s polling numbers back to earth.   But if you step back and focus on the big picture fundamentals, Newt’s strong showing in South Carolina is no more surprising than was Romney’s win in New Hampshire, given Newt’s regional roots and the state’s more conservative political profile.

In short, if Newt wins tomorrow, the switch in the media narrative will be more dramatic than will any change in the fundamental dynamics of the race itself.   And, as I noted yesterday, although Newt will undoubtedly get a boost coming out of South Carolina, the fundamentals – money, organization, demographics – still seem to favor Romney in Florida.  While I don’t share my political science colleagues’ oft-stated belief that Romney’s march to the nomination is preordained, and I disagree that he is helped by the winnowing of the conservative field, I do think a loss in South Carolina is not nearly as damaging to him as the media will suggest.  Similarly, as longtime readers know, I never bought my colleagues’ argument that Newt had no chance to win this nomination – in fact, I suggested that he matched up well with his competitors.  But we should not forget that his candidacy has real weaknesses, not least of which is that he remains a somewhat polarizing figure, that he lacks money, and that he has a weak organization.

So, given these weaknesses, why is Newt doing so well?  In my view, it can be summed up in a word: debates.   The extraordinary number of debates so far – 17 by my count – has afforded maximum (and free!) exposure in a format at which Newt excels.  I don’t recall any previous nomination cycle in which we have seen so many debates, and in which one candidate proved so consistently better than his competitors at taking advantage of this format. This cumulative impact of these debates has been to both winnow the field of potential strong competitors (see Perry) and to weaken others (Romney) while bolstering Gingrich’s reputation.   In short, I believe the debates have gone a long way toward compensating for Gingrich’s lack of money and organization.

There is no better illustration of this than in how Gingrich responded to what might have been a fatal revelation to a candidate who lacked Newt’s debating skills: the Marianne Gingrich accusation that the Newtster sought an “open” marriage so he could continue his dalliance with his new love (and eventual 3rd wife) Callista. Today’s post-mortem by the punditocracy of last night’s debate focused on – and endlessly replayed –  Newt’s riveting exchange with John King regarding Marianne’s accusation.   I watched the interview with Marianne aired by ABC after last night’s debate and her accusations seemed tamer and less harmful to Newt than the media leaks suggested.   Of course, we won’t know the full impact, if any, of this latest revelation before tomorrow.  If the pundits are to be believed, however, Newt’s aggressive debate response went a long way toward neutralizing the issue with South Carolina voters.  I have no independent polling evidence by which to confirm that assessment.  But in using the debate to bolster his political standing, Newt reprised a strategy that has – so far – boosted his candidacy beyond what many of his critics thought was likely. Whether it will be enough to overcome those factors – endorsements, money, and polling support – that most political science models view as the crucial determinants  of nomination races remains to be seen.  But it is a question worth debating.

Addendum (11:45): The latest PPP poll just released today shows Gingrich’s lead in South Carolina expanding 37% to 28% over  Romney, with 16% for Rick Santorum, and 14% for Ron Paul.  In the final day of the three-day tracking poll, Gingrich’s lead is even larger at 40-26% – about the margin that Romney had in winning New Hampshire.  According to PPP, 60% of those surveyed saw Thursday’s debate, and among those Gingrich led by a whopping 46-23%.  This is one poll, but is reinforces the point of my post: Gingrich has benefited from his debate performances.  One other factor in Gingrich’s favor?: only 31% of those surveyed think Marianne Gingrich’s charges are true, and 51% have “no concerns” about what came out in the interview.

I’ll  be on tomorrow.  South Carolina’s polls close at 7 p.m eastern time.  It should be an interesting night… .


Media Bias, the Debates, and Why Jon Huntsman Is In Siberia

The recent controversy regarding whether CBS deliberately limited Michelle Bachmann’s participation in Saturday’s Republican debate once again highlights the crucial role the media plays in winnowing the candidate field during the months prior to the actual start of voting for candidate delegates.  As proof of CBS’ “liberal bias”, Bachmann’s camp pounced on the advertent release of an email sent by CBS news director John Dickerson  to his colleagues suggesting they get someone else to interview after the debate since Bachmann was not a front-runner in the race for the nomination. Dickerson noted that Bachmann was “not going to get many questions” in the debate and that “she’s nearly off the charts” in polling, trailing the frontrunners.

As it turned out, in Saturday’s debate, Bachmann did not get her first question until 15 minutes into the event, and she did not get any follow-up questions, which was in marked contrast to how frontrunners Cain, Gingrich, Romney and Perry were treated.  For Bachmann and her supporters – who have clashed with the media before – this is simply additional evidence of CBS’ liberal slant showing; the news organization is trying to limit coverage of the more conservative Republican candidates. Nor is Bachmann  the only candidate to make this charge – the Paul camp has consistently complained that despite Paul’s fundraising prowess and early victories in straw polls, the media refuses to grant him top-tier status.  And anyone who watches these debates knows that Rick Santorum almost always complains that he isn’t getting enough questions.  Each of these candidates understands that, in this period of the invisible primary, media expectations can become self-fulfilling.  If you get fewer questions, you get less exposure, and are deemed less viable, which affects your polling, which in turn hurts fundraising, which further depresses media coverage.  And at some point you are permanently relegated to second-tier purgatory. .

So, are these candidates right?  Is a liberal media trying to winnow them from the field?  I’ve addressed issues of media bias many times before.  There’s no doubt that the majority of journalists, print and electronic, working in the national press have political views that lean left.  Occasionally their personal views spill over into the news coverage, although I think a bigger bias is what I call the structural bias exhibited by news organizations that are, in the end, profit-making enterprises that must attract a viewing audience.

But I don’t think Bachmann is correct in asserting that CBS’ liberal bias is driving their decision to focus on the frontrunners.  As evidence, note that the most liberal Republican, Jon Huntsman, also received second-class treatment in Saturday’s debate.  At one point in the debate Huntsman – echoing sentiments undoubtedly felt by Paul, Bachmann and Santorum – complained that “It gets a little lonely over here in Siberia from time to time.”

Rather than liberal bias, what is driving the media coverage is the difficulty in covering 8 candidates in equal depth.  Faced with a nearly impossible task, journalists need to make choices, and their decisions are driven by the dictates governing the news business more generally: where’s the news?  If all indications are that Bachmann is polling in single-digits, then she’s not likely to win the nomination, and thus her remarks are deemed less newsworthy.  One need not resort to charges of political bias to understand why the media wants to see this field winnowed down to two-to-three candidates.  And I can understand the sentiment.  As one who has watched almost every Republican debate this campaign season, I can tell you that the logistics of making sure all eight candidates have their say creates problems, not least of which is that none of the candidates can say very much in any single answer.

 So, how does a second-tier candidate get out of Siberia?  By emulating Newt Gingrich’s strategy.  It is easy to forget that not too long ago Gingrich was also languishing in loserville, all but written off by the national press.  But he used the debates to resurrect his candidacy.  He did so by understanding how to make his points using succinct catch phrases or referencing iconic symbols that resonated with Republican voters’ views, and by sprinkling in a steady barrage of barbs aimed at every Republicans’ favorite whipping boy: the liberal media.  As an example, here’s how he responds to a question during Saturday’s debate on how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program:

“GINGRICH:  First of all, abs — maximum covert operations to block and disrupt the Iranian program, including taking out their scientists, including breaking up their systems, all of it covertly, all of it deniable. Second, maximum…


GINGRICH:  — maximum coordination with the Israelis in a way which allows them to maximize their impact in Iran.

GINGRICH:  Third, absolute strategic program comparable to what President Reagan, Pope John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher did to the Soviet Union, of every possible aspect short of war of breaking the regime and bringing it down. And I agree entirely with Governor Romney.  If in the end, despite all of those things, the dictatorship persists you have to take whatever steps are necessary to break its capacity to have a nuclear weapon.”

Note what he’s done here.  The answer is short, and entertaining, and it includes references indicating he supports Israel, and implies that his policy would have the support of those Republican icons Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, and Margaret Thatcher who, by following a similar strategy, brought down the Soviet Union!  (See, it works!)  As icing on the cake, he obeys Reagan’s 11th commandment by praising the answer by his chief rival Mitt Romney.  This is vintage Gingrich, and by dint of repeated answers like this, he has charted a slow but steady rise in the polls.  (I need not take the time here to remind you that I cautioned long ago not to write Gingrich off, so don’t say you weren’t warned!)

Look, I understand Bachmann’s frustration, and that of Santorum, Huntsman and Paul.  Media coverage is biased against them.   The bias reflects the difficulty of covering eight candidates in the depth they deserve.  So the media makes choices that inevitably favor some candidates over others.  If I want to get out of Siberia, however, it is not going to help much by complaining that it’s too cold there. Instead, Bachmann needs to strap on her skis, harness the sled dogs, and start moving to warmer climes, either by charting her own trail or following Gingrich’s path.  And she’d better hurry.