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Why Gingrich Is Romney's Toughest Challenge Yet

Why Gingrich Is Romney's Toughest Challenge Yet

By Sean Trende - November 21, 2011


The GOP nomination race to date can be thought of as two separate series of contests, both involving alternatives to Mitt Romney. In one, the GOP establishment proposed a series of candidates (John Thune, Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan) who were strongly conservative on fiscal issues, and who checked off the boxes on social issues without devoting much time to them. All of these candidates ultimately elected not to run, and the establishment now seems to be settling behind Romney. Barring some last-minute surge by Jon Huntsman, this contest appears to be over.

On the other hand, a large portion of the GOP base has swung behind a series of insurgent, outsider candidates (or potential candidates): Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain. None has had much staying power, and Romney has pretty consistently stayed atop, or near the top of, the GOP field.

There’s little doubt that Newt Gingrich has become the latest "not-Romney" in the polls. He now leads Romney by 0.6 points in the RCP Average. Gingrich also leads in polling for the Iowa caucuses, and is, at least according to one pollster, closing in on Romney in New Hampshire. The conventional wisdom is that he’s the latest "flavor of the week" before the Republicans finally embrace Romney once and for all.

But Gingrich is different than Cain/Perry/Bachmann/Trump in some important ways. They were more or less pure outsiders to Washington: two businessmen who have never held elected office, a three-term congresswoman who has had a testy relationship with her party, and a governor who has had a difficult relationship with the establishment in his own state, to say nothing of the party nationally. All of this enabled these four candidates to establish a beachhead in a state like Iowa, where Christian conservatives will make up around three-fifths of caucus-goers, and where only 12 percent of the electorate was moderate or liberal in 2008 (McCain and Romney tied among this small slice of the electorate that year).

But they could get little traction in a state like New Hampshire, where only 23 percent of the electorate was evangelical in 2008 and 45 percent was moderate or liberal. In addition, their weak ties to the GOP establishment guaranteed that they would face an onslaught of negative press coverage and that their fundraising would remain fairly weak.

Gingrich is different. While I wouldn’t describe him as a favorite of the GOP establishment, he maintains a favorable sentiment among portions of it to an extent that isn’t true of the previous insurgencies. Witness this reasonably favorable article from Fred Barnes in the Weekly Standard. Gingrich was a longtime scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and has been a regular on the Republican rubber-chicken circuit. And his message, while insurgent and reformist, has always paid lip service to social issues: The “Contract With America” famously avoided hot-button social issues in favor of “good government reforms.”

Now, this is not to say that the Republican establishment embraces him wholeheartedly: Witness George Will’s comments here. His first swoon in the polls was precipitated, to an extent, by his criticism of Paul Ryan, criticism that could come back to bite him as the primary rolls onward. It’s just to say that Gingrich has a credibility with the establishment that none of the other “not-Romneys” has had to date.

At the same time, many rank-and-file GOP’ers fondly recall his role in bringing about the first Republican House majority in 40 years. His message is still an outsider, reformist one that should have resonance with Tea Partiers. And while he’s largely avoided social issues, he has been consistent on them (when pressed) to an extent that Romney has not. Combine these two, and you have an appeal that is potentially broad enough to gain traction in both Iowa and New Hampshire.

This isn’t to suggest that Gingrich will be the one to knock Romney out once and for all: Gingrich has a lot of baggage, and when the 30-second spots begin running against him, he may see his lead collapse. The Fannie/Freddie stories in particular will be tough for him to get past. But the fact that Gingrich at least has some ties to the Republican establishment and can compete there makes him a danger to Romney in a way that Trump/Bachmann/Perry/Cain were not. 

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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