Into the Eye of Newt


As Herman Cain’s performance art project/campaign goes the way of last night’s pizza box, this blog is shifting its attention to Georgia’s other big political gift to the current presidential campaign: Newton Leroy Gingrich.

The Emory graduate, West Georgia College professor, and former Speaker of the House of Representatives is opening up a big lead in the national polls for the GOP presidential nomination. 

Although Gingrich has the political background to be considered a serious candidate (whatever serious even means anymore), campaign watchers have long dismissed his campaign the same way they did Cain’s—as a bid to get free TV time to promote his various consulting/book-writing/lobbying efforts. After all, he only now opened a campaign office  in Iowa. And in case you forget or missed it, his campaign staff quit en masse in June because they thought he was less-than-serious about the campaign (and also because many of them wanted to work for Rick Perry). When the people you pay don’t take you seriously, why should the rest of us?

Well, because since October he’s been rising fast in every poll of GOP candidates, that’s why. The conventional wisdom is that he’s kicking butt in the debates. I agree. I don’t find his policy pronouncements especially winning, but I think viewers relate to Gingrich’s self-assurance and his blatant disdain for the vacuity of televised debates. During the debates, I get on my Twitter feed and talk about how stupid the debates have become. He does it from the stage.

Gingrich’s rise in the polls is impressive, but is it going to last? The New Republic‘s Jonathan Bernstein makes a compelling argument against Gingrich’s lasting success. He points out that while Gingrich’s negatives may be old news to close GOP elites and political observers, that GOP rank-and-file have largely forgotten the chain of events that prompted Republicans to pry the Speaker’s gavel out of Gingrich’s hands more than a decade ago. Once his rival candidates (and Fox News) start reminding voters, Gingrich is bound to fall.

I’m not entirely convinced by Bernstein’s argument though. As he hints at, democracy isn’t all about popularity. It’s about popularity and timing. Newt’s popularity is surging just one month from the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. Meanwhile, his main rival Mitt Romney’s numbers are sagging. Look at the numbers: The more he campaigns, the less popular he gets. Gingrich’s timing couldn’t be better.

Think back to 2007 and 2008 when, like Romney today, Hillary Clinton was touted by the political press as the “inevitable” Democratic nominee. Once her inevitability shield started to crack, Democratic muckety-mucks and pundits started turning on her. There is no friendship is politics, only mutual self-interest. If his key supporters start seeing Romney’s campaign sputter, they’ll start to jump ship.

I don’t know if the Gingrich surge is going to last, but credit where it’s due: Gingrich had a lousy hand in June and has played it perfectly thus far. The question now is can he build up a ground game in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina quickly enough to win at least one if not all three contests.