Why Gingrich, unlike Romney, has a serious shot at beating Obama.
The following article presents one interpretation of the race for the Republican presidential nomination. For a counter-view written by Ryan Mauro, in favor of Mitt Romney's electability, click here.
For well over a year now, we’ve been hearing that Mitt Romney was the inevitable nominee for the Republican Party. I’ve personally heard it from Republican fundraisers, Republican Party staffers, and high-ranking conservative commentators. Not only was Romney inevitable, they’d say, he deserved inevitability, because he was clearly the most electable candidate.
With Newt Gingrich blowing Romney’s inevitability meme out of the water in South Carolina and Florida, the question is no longer whether Mitt is inevitable – he’s not—but whether he deserves to be the nominee based on electability.
I believe Mitt is, in fact, virtually unelectable. By contrast, I believe that Newt Gingrich has a serious shot at beating President Obama. Here’s why.
(1) Narrative. Presidential elections are decided on narrative and who gets to define it. In 2004, conservatives succeeded in defining the race as a strong and stable wartime president against a flip-flopping Vietnam-era radical who lied about his war record. In 2008, Obama and the media defined the narrative, which quickly became “The Chosen One.”
In 2012, the conventional Republican wisdom goes, Republicans must run as bland a candidate as humanly possible. If they do, Obama’s record will be the issue rather than the Republican candidate. Romney is clearly the least offensive candidate.
There’s only one problem: every narrative has to define both candidates. The Republican establishment may wish to define Romney as a successful businessman and CEO with governing experience. But he will be defined instead as a 1% elitist out of touch with mainstream Americans; his Bain Capital background will be trotted out to no end; his failure to create jobs in Massachusetts will become a key campaign issue (he was 46th out of 50 during his tenure). The Obama campaign is drooling to get their hooks into Romney – that’s what the entire Occupy Wall Street movement has been about.
Romney has been absolutely incapable of fending off such attacks in the primaries. Gingrich trashed Romney over Bain Capital, and it clearly had an effect with South Carolina voters; Romney’s tax records have been more of an issue than Newt’s marriages in the last two weeks, despite the best efforts of Marianne Gingrich.
In fact, it gets even worse for Romney. Historically, boring candidates don’t do the defining – they get defined. Name the more boring candidate in each election since 1976, and you will be naming a loser: Ford, Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, H.W. Bush, Dole, Gore, Kerry, McCain. This is an unbreakable rule. Boring candidates do not have the charisma or capacity to define themselves.
What’s worse, they don’t have the ability to define their opponents, either. Romney is especially plagued by this. The two issues of this campaign will clearly be Obamacare and job creation. Romney loses on both – he created the model for Obamacare, and his job creation record is extraordinarily spotty. The best argument he can make about Obama is the one he’s been making: that Obama is incompetent, that he has “amassed an actual record of debt, decline and disappointment.” It’s a good argument. It’s just not a winning argument. Kerry tried the same argument in 2004; Dole tried the same argument in 1996. Defining Obama as incompetent won’t cut it, because in fact, he is extremely competent – at achieving far-left goals.
Want to know Obama’s counterargument? It’ll look a good deal like Andrew Sullivan’s infamous Newsweek piece. And if this campaign gets bogged down in the details of whether a recovery is actually taking place, even as Obama defines Romney as an out-of-touch richy-rich guy, Obama will win.
It will be significantly more difficult for Obama to craft a narrative about Newt. Obama can’t attack Newt on lobbying – Obama’s stacked his administration with lobbyists, and he was the #2 recipient of Fannie/Freddie money in the Senate. He can’t attack Newt on job creation – if Obama wants to argue Gingrich era job creation vs. Obama era job creation, good luck to him. He could go after him on his personal life, but the only people who care about that are conservative, anyway. He can’t attack Newt as an elitist – they’re both professors. So what’s left? The “crazy old coot” argument. If Newt can avoid that pitfall, as he’s been doing so far with Romney, he can maintain his image as the “big idea guy” who worked with and against Clinton to create massive economic growth.
As for Newt defining Obama – well, Newt hasn’t been shy about that. His goal is to paint Obama not just as incompetent but as unexpectedly radical – a man who posed as a moderate but governed like a hard-left ideologue. Newt has been impressively articulate on this. He may not cite Alinsky during the general election, but you can bet he’ll go after Obama on Obamacare, foreign policy spinelessness, and socialistic redistributionism. McCain hit on that theme last time, but only in the last two weeks – and by then, it was too late. Newt has already come up with the single catchiest title for Obama: The Food Stamp President. It works because not only is Obama putting people on food stamps, he’s ideologically committed to increasing the number of people on food stamps. This title sticks. But it won’t stick coming from Romney, who looks like he’s never met anybody on food stamps.
(2) Numbers. The Republican establishment constantly acts as though it must run the most moderate possible candidate in order to win. Candidates without clear vision, in this view, run the best. Once again, that’s wrong. Gallup shows that 40 percent of Americans consider themselves conservative; 35 percent of Americans consider themselves moderate; just 21 percent of Americans consider themselves liberal. That means that for a Republican to win convincingly, he need only win less than one out of three moderates and draw the entire conservative base.
There are two ways of winning moderates. The first is to pose as a moderate – but in doing so, you risk losing your base (see McCain, John). The second is to run as a reasonable conservative, but portray your opponent as a vastly radical liberal (see Reagan, Ronald). The better strategy, obviously, is the Reagan strategy.
Who is more equipped to pursue that strategy, Mitt or Newt? Mitt can’t earn the trust of conservatives. The Republican establishment’s endorsement of him actually hurt him here – conservatives don’t trust the establishment, especially when they’re busily redefining conservatism to embrace Romney’s moderate Massachusetts record. And Mitt hasn’t done himself any favors by clinging to Romneycare with the addictive ardor of the true narcissist, or by disassociating himself from the Tea Party.
Newt, by contrast, has made plenty of mistakes – but he’s smart enough to apologize for them. He’s never run from the Tea Party. There’s a reason that Tea Partiers are rallying behind him, too – this was the man who led the Republican Revolution of 1994. No matter how loud commentators scream that Mitt is more conservative than Newt, nobody believes them for one reason: he isn’t.
The proof’s in the pudding: in South Carolina, Newt won virtually every group, with record voter turnout. Romney got smashed among conservatives and independents. Is there anyone who seriously thinks that Romney will get better conservative turnout than Newt would?
So can Newt get one out of three moderate voters? You bet he can. He has the strongest voter outreach to Hispanics; he’s got heavy appeal to pro-Israel Jews. He is spending his time portraying Obama as a radical – and with labels like “Food Stamp President,” he’s succeeding.
But what about approval ratings? Romney advocates have been pushing the fact that Gingrich’s favorability is in the toilet – which it is. A few months back, his favorability was 32% vs. 43% unfavorable; now, it’s 51% unfavorable to 29% favorable. But Romney’s not much better off. His favorability ratings are now down to 31%, with unfavorables at 49%.
Some have argued that Romney has the capacity to bounce back from such numbers. Yet Romney has shown over and over that the more people see him, the more they dislike him. He’s been on the national stage for seven years now. He’s never going to be supremely popular. And his stability means that he’s not likely to change that anytime in the near future.
In any case, favorability ratings generally don’t matter in presidential elections. Bush’s favorability ratings were disastrous in 2004; he won anyway. People might like Mitt Romney – but they’ll like him even as they pull the lever for Obama. People might dislike Newt Gingrich – but by the time Gingrich is finished with Obama, they might like the idea of a continued Obama presidency even less. If this campaign is going to be run on personal favorability, Obama will win in a walk in either case – personality is the only aspect of Obama that people can stand.
(3) Personality. The last vestige of the Romney campaign has now been risked on characterizing Newt Gingrich as a “zany” candidate, a representative of the Loony Tunes contingent. “With Newt Gingrich, it is an October surprise everyday,” says Romney.
It’s true that Newt has the capacity to blow up at any time. But he also has the capacity to come back from blowing himself up. He’s the zombie candidate. You cannot put him down. He was destroyed in Iowa. He was destroyed in New Hampshire. He’s about to win South Carolina and Florida.
That’s the risk and the reward of Newt. His brilliance means that he has the ability to inspire. It also means he can say things that leave you scratching your head. By and large, Newt is capable of adjusting on the fly, however. He does not go down for the count.
Romney, by contrast, is uninspiring where Newt is passionate. He comes off as inauthentic, perhaps even insincere. He’s stable. He doesn’t know how to shift his campaign on a dime and counterpunch. He’s been running since the Bee Gees were on the singles charts, and he still doesn’t know how to respond to attacks on Romneycare and Bain Capital. This is not the mark of a good campaigner.
Ann Coulter recently called Gingrich “our Clinton.” Blogger Melissa Clouthier responded, “Romney is our Gore.” Both are exactly right. Clinton may have been volatile, but there’s no question he was a knife fighter in a campaign. Gore was the opposite. Who won, and who lost?
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