Thursday, March 3, 2011

Do We Have To Take Newt Seriously?

That's the case that Ed Kilgore makes over at TNR:
But the Republican Party electorate is clearly desperate, deluded, and filled with ennui right now. Everything we know about the adaptable Gingrich tells us that he will bend over backwards to give Republican audiences what they want, whether or not it comports with what he was saying the day before yesterday. In this strange environment, that might be all that’s necessary.
Kilgore is a smart, veteran observer of the political process...but I'm not buying it. His argument rests on the idea that Newt is well-positioned to do well in Iowa by running as the Christian conservative candidate, presumably assuming that neither the Huck or the Sage of Wasilla wind up contesting that state. After that, if he wins there and derails the Pawlenty Express before it gets started, he would then I guess, in the best-case scenario, be in a one-on-one contest with the Mittster, who has all sorts of well-known problems and potential problems with Republican voters.

Well, it's true that conservatives in Iowa have done all sorts of nutty things in past caucuses, most famously supporting Pat Robertson (2nd place, ahead of sitting VP Bush) in 1988.

Still, I think the Newt scenario is too far-fetched to be plausible.

Problem #1 is that GOP elites, especially the ones he worked with when he was Speaker, probably neither like nor trust him very much. Yes, Iowa social conservatives are willing to vote for people who are disdained by other conservative leaders. But is Newt really going to get the kind of support from Christian conservative leaders, especially national leaders, that Mike Huckabee had in 2008? I find that very, very difficult to believe, no matter how much he's been tailoring his rhetoric to appeal to them. After all, it's not as if those leaders have nowhere else to go; Tim Pawlenty and even, for that matter, Rick Santorum are both perfectly acceptable on the issues that matter to those groups.

Problem #2 is that voters haven't much liked Newt, throughout his career. Once he hit the national scene, his approval ratings tanked rapidly, and have generally stayed there. It's true that core Republican activists loved him, at least for a while, but then again he never faced Republican opposition back then attacking him on...well, where to start? His marital history? Ethics violations? Myriad ideological deviations, over the years, including his climate ad with Nancy Pelosi? His status as a Washington insider? A lot of people after 2008 thought that Sarah Palin was bulletproof, but in fact over the last couple of years attacks, including a fair number from conservatives, have hurt her. The same would be true for Gingrich, if he became a serious candidate. And unlike Palin, Newt has no core of strong supporters who will be with him no matter what.

Even if Newt could somehow manage to pull off an Iowa victory and narrow the field to himself and Romney, that's no real contest; the Mittster would clobber him. Don't forget -- the skill Kilgore attributes to Newt, that he would adapt to whatever Republicans want, is a skill shared with the former governor of Massachusetts. I'm not sure, either, that Newt's ties the South that Kilgore mentions would really be significant; he's not culturally very Southern at all (although perhaps more than Romney, I suppose).

I'm going to continue to not take the Newt presidential run seriously, at all. But do read Kilgore's column, and perhaps you'll be more persuaded than I am -- and, regardless, he has plenty of good Newt stuff in there that makes it worth reading regardless.

19 comments:

  1. Do you really think that a Romney vs. Gingrich matchup is a slam dunk for Mitt?

    Gingrich isn't a Mormon. He didn't pass a health care plan that turned out to be the model for probably the single law most despised by conservatives since the Panama Canal Treaty. He may change his wives, but not as often as Romney changes his views on issues.

    Plus if both Huckabee and Palin don't run, that's a lot of strongly conservative voters up for grabs. In 2008, conservative elites praised Romney to the heavens and mostly ignored the Huckster. Who did evangelicals vote for? Anybody But the Mormon. What makes you think they would behave differently in 2012? Pawlenty might be a plausible alternative, since he is an evangelical himself. (I wonder how Catholic voters would react to a candidate who had left the faith. My guess is that they won't care).

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  2. Two points:

    1. Like you, I think Newt's political instincts are way overrated. After his impressive rise to power in the '90s he basically led the GOP off a cliff, and I believe most party insiders realize that by now, assuming they didn't before. The only one who seems not to realize it is Newt himself.

    2. The problem with making any definitive predictions about this race is that every candidate looks practically dead in the water, and so it feels like anyone could be nominated at this point, as long as the other ones self-destruct and/or cancel each other out.

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  3. Richard,

    *Newt* probably has changed his mind on far more issues than Romney has. And I'm not talking about his prehistory as a liberal Republican; I'm talking about everything he's said as Speaker and over the years. He's an opp research dream. There's tons of stuff that conservatives won't like. And as for evangelicals -- do you think that opinion leader evangelicals trust Newt? Why would they?

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  4. But even if evangelical opinion leaders don't back Newt, they're not going to get their followers to embrace a Mormon. They tried that in 2008 and failed. In the unlikely scenario of a Romney-Gingrich two-person race, I'm guessing that most evangelicals would take Newt, with his massive baggage, over someone they see as a peril to Christianity itself.

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  5. I don't know...while it was still contested, didn't evangelicals vote for Huck? Do we have evidence (and we might; I don't know) that they chose McCain over Romney?

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  6. Jonathan:

    Thanks for the shout-out, and for the analysis. I should say, though, that my take on Newt's viability was, or certainly was intended to be, a bit more ambivalent than you suggest.

    I suspect we disagree somewhat about the relative power of GOP "elites" to get rid of unsuitable candidates like Gingrich, at least when, as was the case in 2008 and appears to be the case now, they have no consensus candidates, and no particularly strong candidates, to prefer (it says a lot that I think the strongest prospect at present is Tim Pawlenty).

    But your point about Gingrich's lack of any demonstrated appeal to actual voters is perhaps the most important. Another part of Newt's past that I didn't have the space to get into in the brief TNR piece is his near-defeat in a GOP primary in 1992, when he was on the very brink of his national triumph (yes, he had been gerrymandered into an unfamiliar district, but still, his opponent was a virtual unknown). It's helpful to a guy like Newt that the presidential nominating process begins in a caucus state where activists are the only people you have to impress. But eventually, you have to show mass appeal, and he's never really demonstrated he can do that other than as an incumbent House member in heavily favorable territory.

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  7. Yes, Huckabee dominated among evangelicals, especially in the South. In most states with large numbers of evangelical voters, Romney ran behind McCain or about even. We don't know how Huckabee voters would have split in a McCain-Romney race -- probably about evenly, maybe a little more towards McCain in the South.

    Alabama (77% Republican primary voters identified as evangelical):
    Huckabee 42
    McCain 29
    Romney 20

    Tennessee (73%):
    Huckabee 42
    McCain 29
    Romney 20

    Oklahoma (72%):
    Huckabee 39
    McCain 31
    Romney 26

    Georgia (62%):
    Huckabee 43
    Romney 28
    McCain 27

    South Carolina (60%):
    Huckabee 43
    McCain 27
    Thompson 15
    Romney 11

    Iowa caucuses (60%):
    Huckabee 46
    Romney 19
    Thompson 11
    McCain 10
    Paul 10

    Missouri (55%):
    Huckabee 41
    Romney 30
    McCain 24

    Illinois (41%):
    McCain 38
    Huckabee 28
    Romney 27

    Florida (39%):
    McCain 30
    Huckabee 29
    Romney 29

    California (35%):
    McCain 33
    Romney 32
    Huckabee 26

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  8. The problem is, someone's gotta win. Palin's a joke, Romney's an apostate, Huckabee can't raise money, and on and on and on...but the Republican Party WILL have a nominee for President.

    And since I don't see Newt's problems as any more insurmountable than, say, Romney's (and much less than Palin's) I'm hardly convinced that he's a strong candidate, but I'm convinced he CAN win.

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  9. I agree with Ed Kilgore and Colby.

    (1) Newt has always been better at impressing Republican elites (office-seekers, donors, activists, policy wonks) than actual voters.

    (2) Somebody has to win. Every potential Republican candidate has near-debilitating problems, but one will be nominated. You could have said the same thing in 2008.

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  10. Ed,

    Sorry if I oversold your faith (such as it was) in Newt; you certainly didn't say he was likely to win or anything like that. You're right: I have more confidence in GOP elites (broadly understood -- it includes activists) to shoot down candidates than I think you do.

    Richard,

    Thanks for the actual data. It seems to me that if Romney can run almost even with McCain with evangelicals, he should be able to do better against Newt. His road-to-Damascus experience is a lot farther in the past, he's a more experienced candidate, and Newt's not a war hero or anything like that.

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  11. Re the question of southern support, I should have also addressed Jonathan's quite valid observation that Newt's not "culturally southern." A while back, every time I heard someone describe Gingrich as a "southerner" (he's really an army brat who moved to the south in high school), I would respond: "Newt's not from the South. He represents a collection of malls and subdivisions from which you can phone the South toll-free."

    But over time, I think southern Republicans have adopted him. He certainly does pretty well in early 2012 primary polls in southern states. If Huck runs, I think he beats Gingrich handily both in Iowa and in the Deep South. But that's the rub. Newt has many problems, but Huck has one potentially disqualifying problem: the man just can't seem to raise money, and in fact, may not run because he wouldn't be able to make his mortgage payments on that big house he's building in Florida.

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  12. Colby and Richard,

    Yes, someone has to win -- that's a very important point. But IMO Romney, Pawlenty, and Barbour are all viable, as is Huck if he winds up staying in, and even perhaps Palin...there's still time for Perry or DeMint, too (and perhaps there are one or two others who could jump in this late).

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  13. But Romney hasn't gotten any less Mormon. And I don't expect evangelical elites to be *more* hostile to Gingrich than they were to McCain. After all, McCain has a messy personal life, too.

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  14. To add my considerable physical weight and totally ignorable intellectual weight to Richard's side, I think you're underestimating the "Mormon problem" amongst evangelicals. Mormons have been poaching on the turf of the evangelicals for a while now, expanding into their neighborhoods. And evangelicals really don't go for the magic underwear, Jesus came back, multiple wives are OK (even though they no longer are, that's a very persistent myth about Mormons) thing. Romney's run improved the numbers who said they'd never vote for a Mormon, but even after that run, he's facing about 20% of Republicans who would never consider voting for him. That's a brutal number in a multi-candidate field.

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  15. I agree with everyone that Romney's religion may matter. I guess I don't see it as an absolute.

    Also, if Romney's religion really matters that much, then fine; he'll burn out, and someone else winds up beating Newt.

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  16. The last time out Mitt spent far more then anyone else and had the backing of GOP elites. He came in third. Next time he will have to talk about healthcare - a subject he avoided last time. I think his chances are slim.

    I doubt voters will go for someone who has been out of government for over a decade. Newt's divorces will make the evangelicals cool to him. Kilore does not mention immigration. Newt's actions as speaker and his current positions are viewed with disgust by me and will be by many others on the right if they are informed by his opponents ads.

    There are many others out there who do not have as much baggage as these two.

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  17. >Also, if Romney's religion really matters that much, then fine; he'll burn out, and someone else winds up beating Newt.

    I'm afraid that isn't very convincing. Anytime you talk about some vague "someone else," you're only calling attention to the lack of certainty in this race. Newt may be disqualified as a serious candidate; the only problem is that just about all the other big-name candidates seem also to be disqualified for one reason or another, and it's hard for me to imagine the GOP picking a dark horse when they haven't done so in like, what? 70 years? (I think Wendell Willkie was the last one.)

    My personal hunch is still on Romney, but I'm anything but certain about it. So I suspect that they will end up picking someone who's unacceptable in some way, because, let's face it, they simply don't have anyone who's totally acceptable. Was McCain in 2008 acceptable? That certainly wasn't the perception at the time. He won in part because his rivals, Romney and Huck, sort of canceled each other out in the winner-take-all contests. I think 2012 is even more up in the air than 2008. That's why I'm hesitant to make any definitive statements about who's toast.

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  18. I don't get this, really. Pawlenty is acceptable to every faction of the party. Barbour is acceptable to every faction of the party. He's running, at least at this point. Daniels is only sort of running at this point...he's said some things to annoy lots of factions, but he also seems to have a lot of fans, and doesn't actually, as far as I know, have any specific issue positions that are trouble.

    I agree about the 2008 field, but at least as of now, I don't think it really applies to the 2012 field. And, as Mercer says (and I said up top), Newt himself has all sorts of issue positions over the years that really are problematic for various groups.

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  19. I think the argument for Newt winning is that he's a very sharp, informed guy with a very strong grasp of the issues. He'd do well in a debate, for example, especially those eight-person candidate pileups we see in wide-open primaries like 2012 figures to be.

    I know lots of conservatives who were salivating at the thought of Obama winning the nomination in '08 because he seemed to have so many vulnerabilities on paper, but to paraphrase Kenny Mayne: elections aren't won on paper, they're won by tiny little men inside televisions. Newt's good on his feet, and that might be enough this time around.

    I'll still take "The Field" any day of the week and twice on Election Day, but the argument for Newt is that a lot of this stuff (particularly the infidelities in his past) has a statue of limitations on it, and that being the most dynamic guy on the stump and behind the podium covers a multitude of sins, both actual and political.

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