Why Newt Soared but Could Sour

Why Newt Soared but Could Sour

By David Paul Kuhn - January 27, 2012

It’s no longer a race between Mitt Romney and Not Romney. Newt Gingrich’s resurgence is rooted in the candidate he is, rather than the candidate he is not.

Gingrich has proven able to win with a broader coalition than Romney. That coalition eviscerated Romney’s double-digit lead in national polls. The GOP race is now a dead heat between the two men. Romney remains the favorite. But Gingrich is a serious contender for the nomination. And it’s a mistake to limit Gingrich’s GOP appeal to what Romney is not. 

But Gingrich’s primary vulnerabilities are a layer beneath the surface. Republicans’ attachment to Gingrich remains fickle. Gingrich’s appeal to men is significantly offset by his weaknesses with women (see Insider Advantage polling on Sunday and Wednesday). The GOP electorate is still digesting who Gingrich is and, perhaps more consequentially, is not.

Gingrich’s South Carolina victory was the most impressive thus far. But it was also exaggerated. Outlets, such as Bloomberg News, reported that Republican turnout in South Carolina set a new record. Therefore, some pundits concluded, Gingrich is changing the electorate. But not so fast. Turnout is measured against the number of eligible voters. South Carolina’s turnout was a numerical record but not an actual record -- 17.3 percent in 2012 compared to 19.5 percent in 2000 -- according to data compiled by the authority on turnout Curtis Gans.

Yet Gingrich’s resurgence cannot be ghettoized to one state. In mid January, Romney led the GOP field by about two dozen percentage points in Gallup’s national poll. Gingrich now narrowly leads Romney. Gingrich’s comeback is owed more to conservatives, older voters, partisans and men. But he has also made gains with GOP-leaning independents and women. Gingrich rose equally among religious and secular Republicans.

The GOP primary is also not a contest between main street Republicans and populist Republicans. Gingrich has the same level of support among college graduates as those who are not. And he’s surged equally with both groups. Romney’s New Hampshire victory also lacked class fissures. If working class Republicans were voting on economic class, they’d be Democrats.

Simply put, many Republicans are not merely voting against Romney. They are voting for Gingrich. But why?

Fiery and Flawed vs. Bland and Flawed

Republican graybeards -- from opinion leaders like George Will to politicians like Tim Pawlenty -- note what Gingrich is not. Not a consistent conservative. Not morally conservative. Not temperamentally conservative.

But are conservatives’ spirits today more Will-Pawlenty or Gingrich? Or better put, more Romney or Gingrich? Of course, Republican leaders tolerated riled ranks when they fueled their 2010 landslide. GOP mandarins are now coming to grips with the fact that sailing with the wind means you are subject to the wind.

Gingrich is best understood in those 2010 terms. Conservatives ache for an articulate pugilist. The media sniffs at Gingrich’s portrayal of them as elitist. But are Gingrich’s recriminations of the media far more hyperbolic than the analysis by some pundits (from Frank Rich to Chris Matthews) that the tea party movement is fundamentally motivated by racial animus? Jabs against those who shame conservatives win conservatives.

Republicans see someone who fights back. They want a champion who can face down a champion (the president). South Carolina also proved Republicans care that their pugilist is qualified. This is where Gingrich’s experience aids him.

Gingrich owes his comeback to a two-word perception: capable combatant. That is, the perception that he is capable of cogently making the conservative case but also serving as president. That’s why he won a majority of South Carolina voters who said defeating Barack Obama was the most important quality in a candidate.

This week’s NBC-Wall Street Journal poll asked participants to rank Gingrich and Romney on their ability to be president on a 1 to 5 scale (very poor to very good, respectively). Three-quarters of Republicans ranked Gingrich a 4 or 5. Only two-thirds of Republicans ranked Romney the same.

Consider the choice currently before Republicans. Fiery and flawed versus bland and flawed. That’s Gingrich’s ideal frame. Romney must change the choice. He needs to convince Republicans that Gingrich’s fire will ultimately burn them. As of now, conservatives revere that fire.

The right’s in a fighting mood. Consider an autumn CNN poll. Half of Republicans who identify with the tea party said they were “very angry.” Most of the remaining said they were “somewhat angry.” Yet non tea party Republicans did not share Romney’s even-keel temper either. Three-in-10 of those Republicans said they were “very angry.” Half said they were “somewhat angry.”

Why Today’s Right Overlooks Newt’s Vice for Virtue

Gingrich’s ability to survive his contradictions is visible within the context of his appeal. Social science, and cable news, teaches that liberal and conservative partisans will overlook the flaws of their champions.

About two-thirds of Republicans believe Gingrich is as ethical as other politicians, according to Rasmussen. Gingrich has not risen to the ethical bar. The bar has been lowered. Americans currently rate the “honesty and ethical standards” of members of Congress worse than any profession -- including telemarketers, lobbyists, car salespeople -- since Gallup began asking the question three decades ago.

So Gingrich was the first speaker of the House disciplined for ethics violations. So Gingrich campaigns as an outsider but made millions being lobby-esque. So Gingrich pushed a president to resign for philandering while philandering. So what? Supporters ask. He fights who conservatives fight.

Today’s Republicans are sweating the economy, jobs and austerity. Social issues still matter to the right. But they are not at the fore of Republicans' minds.

Candidates are measured against the alternative and their time. Some GOP bigwigs still daydream about a white knight. But the filing deadline has already passed on states with about 40 percent of the delegates. Republicans are stuck with their choices.

Republicans still could (likely will?) choose their John Kerry over their Howard Dean. But liberals are only a minority of Democrats. Conservatives are a majority of Republicans. Gingrich would face immense obstacles in a general election. But if he becomes conservatives’ consensus candidate, he wins the nomination.

This is why Gingrich is not only the latest Non Romney. Gingrich currently retains Romney’s perception of competence. Yet he also personifies what Republicans feel. And that perception runs deep. That’s where the contrast counts.

“My favorite Uncle” is a “Strong Leader”

Nearly two months ago, veteran pollster Peter Hart conducted a focus group in suburban Virginia. A dozen Republican primary voters sat around a conference table. Hart asked participants to associate a member of the family with candidates.

Gingrich elicited paternal roles (father, grandfather). Some said uncle. But they chose phrases like “my uncle Joe” or “my favorite uncle.” One woman said, with a cautious smile, “He might be that uncle but he’d keep bringing around different wives to Thanksgiving,” and threw open her hands. Another woman immediately responded that Gingrich is a “father figure.”

Romney drew no immediate associations. The first was ideological, “black sheep.” Two women then said “neighbor.” Hart reminded them Romney was family. Eyes scanned around the table. Several people said Romney reminded them of a distant cousin or uncle. A woman explained, “Because he’s richer than the rest of us, he wouldn’t come to our events.” A young man said he sees Romney as a “dad who’s never at home” because he has the “responsibility” but is “not connected.” Then a man cited Romney’s real family and said Romney would be a “close member of the family.” Another man agreed. But neither man named that family member. Even Romney’s defenders were all head and no heart.

The participants were later asked to rate how qualified the candidates were to be president. Gingrich ranked at the top of the scale among 10 of 12 participants. Seven ranked Romney that high. Gingrich’s experience was repeatedly cited over the two hour session. One man said Gingrich could “make things happen.”

At another point, candidates’ photos were tacked on a wall. Hart asked participants to guess the occupation of the candidates if they were not politicians. For Gingrich, the first response was “CEO.” Another woman joked “taste tester.” One participant said Gingrich looked like a retired military man. Several others agreed. Hart pointed to Romney. Answers included pastor and businessman. But they also included: TV pitchman, salesman and actor.

The Republicans gathered around the table were aware of Gingrich’s salacious background. One man said he thinks of Gingrich as a “doer” and “strong leader” but is a “little concerned” about the “multiple marriages.” Another man chimed in, “I’m not concerned about the morality issues” because Gingrich is “strong” and can make “tough decisions.” Later, when asked to name their concerns with every candidate, four participants noted Gingrich’s marriages and affairs.

In the end, when asked to choose in a race between Romney and Gingrich, nine of 12 said Gingrich. Still, reports about the affairs dog Gingrich. Of the three who backed Romney, around the table, all spoke of Gingrich’s affairs in critical terms. That relates to findings in the recent NBC-Journal poll. Republicans said Gingrich was more qualified. They also, however, expressed more concern with Gingrich's affairs than Romney's wealth or business history. 

Yet overall that day in Virginia, “strength” and its synonyms were consistently associated with Gingrich. Participants said Gingrich could be “opinionated” and “volatile.” But even those weaknesses relate to his strengths. “Terrorists would be afraid of him,” a woman said at one point. “Ummm,” a man responded in agreement.

This is why Gingrich routed Romney in South Carolina. Why he could win the nomination. But it also demonstrates why he could not. If conservatives decide Gingrich’s vice undercuts his virtue, if he loses the perception that he is not only a combatant but also capable, he loses the race. 

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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