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… .



  1. Does Gringrich have much support among Republicans outside of the Confederacy, and its Western offshoots? Will Romney sweep the Republican primaries in the Midwest and the coasts? Brokered convention, or not?

  2. Arnim,

    Nationally, Romney still leads in the polls, but a recent Gallup survey shows Newt gaining there as well, although he still trailed Romney by 10% as of two days ago. I expect, if Gingrich wins today, he will close that gap even more. But it’s not clear how national figures translate into support within the next several states. In Florida, where they vote on Jan. 31, Romney still has a sizable lead – but that may shrink in the aftermath of a Gingrich win. Then we go to a couple of caucus states – Nevada and Maine, where organization and intensity of preference counts. Paul could do well in both states. All a long way of saying that it is difficult to gauge Gingrich’s support across different regions, because it will likely vary depending on how he does in the next several races.

    I haven’t really played out the scenarios by which we might see a brokered convention. My gut reaction says the possibility is very very very low – but that’s not based on a careful analysis. I’m working on that. Here’s a source for the Gallup national poll:


  3. How do you figure race is going to be a factor in the Republican selection. As you know people’s true racial feelings are sometimes not even acknowledged by participants in polls, nor are conscious contributing factors in people’s opinions. For many black folks such as myself, this election is a replay of the election of 1876, whereby black formerly enslaved people were stripped of their political rights in the culmination of the Redemption. The Newt is blatantly pursuing that path, and although many say its a short sighted strategy, I’m really not convinced it won’t work in the end. Romney has the visuals from central casting for the role of Great White Hope, but not the “fire in the belly” to call a “spade a spade”, confront Obama, and ‘put him in his place”, as the party stallwarts would say. Of course being 62 and growing up during the Civil Rights movement, I am aware that the nation has purportedly evolved past a simply black and white lens of viewing politics. However, I’m skeptical of the liberal white/independent voter when it comes to privileging class and substance over race. The abolitionists retreated to the North in 1876 and left the black folks to fend for themselves. I think the 40% of the white electorate who would not vote for Obama under any circumstances and are the Republican base are going to empower the Newt to the extent necessary to force Romney as far right as is possible. If Romney doesn’t go there, I think that 40% is enough to take the nominating process to a brokered convention. Race is, of course, the unspoken elephant in the room, and is a completely irrational factor that doesn’t manifest well in polling data. However, it has probably been the most pervasive and powerful force in American political and social history. I don’t see why it should stop being so in 2012. Of course, I’m willing to concede that things have changed, and five years ago I would not have predicted an Obama presidency. Yet, the response to his presidency has been utterly predictable if one studies the Reconstruction and Redemption periods of American history. And, I do know historical analogies are never exact, but we can learn from history and sometimes it can be predictive.

  4. Arnim,

    Great comment, one that deserve a separate post in response. The most important point you made, I think, is how difficult it is to poll on the issue of race because of several factors: 1) people often give what they believe to be socially acceptable responses 2) the influence of race is often subtle, and operates on the subconscious level 3) race plays out politically in different ways; its influence varies in intensity and is not one directional. Because of the difficulty in measuring racial influence, it leaves the field open for people to make assertions about racial beliefs and political outcomes that are difficult to assess empirically. Even so, there are some fascinating efforts by political scientists to tease out the relative influence of race versus class as it pertained to the 2008 election. But untangling the influences are difficult. You may not be surprised to know that studies have come to different conclusions, with some arguing race cost Obama votes in 2008 and others saying it had had little influence or was even a net benefit to him. I expect we are going to revisit this issue in depth in the coming months no matter who the Republicans nominate. In anticipation of this, let me begin the conversation by saying that the polling data does indicate that, so far, Republican voters in the early caucus and primaries seem primarily concerned about choosing someone who can beat Obama, even more so than having a nominee who shares voters conservative values. You might think that this favors Romney, but in South Carolina recent polls are showing that Gingrich is viewed as almost as electable as Romney! Winning, it seems, breeds the perception that one is a winner…. Again, however, we need to be very careful not to overreact to the results in South Carolina, not matter what the media hype.

    I know I haven’t addressed your other point re: the relative influence of class vs. race among independents and liberals – bear with me. I’ll see if I can dig up survey data at some point.

  5. I agree that Gringrich being perceived as a winner is going to be beneficial to his advancement. I also concur with your assessment that “conservative values” is a public relations trope. Most black people I know don’t take the white populace’s professions of Christianity and conservative values seriously, having been enslaved by Christians for two and half centuries, and terrorized for another. The South has always been full of pious hypocrites, sexual and otherwise, and one must never forget that the Republican reaction to the liberalism that prevailed from 1930’s through the 1960’s began with Nixon’s Southern strategy. We are dealing with the remnants of the Confederacy propounded by their direct descendents. That’s with whom the Republicans cast their lot in 1966. They joined forces with Northern working class ethnics, now known as Reagan democrats, who historically have viewed blacks as labor competitors and have now expanded that impulse to include Latin and other immigrants of colour. I am personlly hoping that the Republicans fall back on their 1876 playbook, and see which of the candidates can “out nigger” the other a la white politicians in the post Brown v. Board South. Most black people I know suspect that this is going to be the most racist campaign ever, once the Republican nominee is settled. The code words are already being bandied about with impunity. I’m mildly optimistic that it won’t work this time, though it has almost always been successful in the past. I am really looking forward to seeing your data pertaining to these issues, if it exists, or if you can concoct w working theory on the place of race in this campaign supported by data. I’m looking past South Carolina to Florida. It’s a Southern state; it has a substantial population of older Jewish voters for whom Obama is anathema on the Israel/Iran issue, yet who are old time New Deal Democrats; Latin Americans, many of the most powerful and influential of are reactionary white Cubans, but whom many of the other Latins resent as being elitist, racist, and moreover privileged in terms of immigration issues; it has a measurable black population subject to voter suppression and not economically influential relatively speaking; and it has a substantial population of younger voters. It is a state that more accurately represents the diversity of America as compared to Iowa, New Hampshire & South Carolina. I fully expected the Newt to surge in Carolina, being a Georgia boy and conversant in Southern Negro speak. Furthermore, I saw all the sequescentennial celebrations of the commencement of the Civil War enacted in Charleston, in which no black people were anywhere to be seen – not even as enslaved people. The ground was ripe for race baiting. For extrapolation purposes, I think Florida bears close scrutiny because it will give an indication as to the viability of the traditional Democratic Party constituencies. The Republian conversation will most likely move to the Mideast and Israel’s place therein; Cuba and Communism, which will seq into the Horatio Alger mythology of making it in America; they will tread gingerly around immigration; pump religion, and cast a more than a few aspersions on the Negroes. We’ll see if it works.

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