The conventional wisdom that former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney would coast to victory in next year’s Republican nomination race has now been decisively overturned. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has been running a confident insurgent campaign for the nomination, and the way things look his advantages in political momentum could be insurmountable with just weeks to go until decision day in Iowa and beyond.
Let’s start with this Washington Post poll from last week, “Gingrich emerges as clear front-runner in Iowa.” And also with the Des Moines Register poll from Thursday, December 8, “Iowa Poll: Iowans most jazzed over Gingrich.” The results from such surveys are big news in the closing weeks of the Republican presidential campaign: Gingrich has surged to the front of the GOP pack in Iowa and Romney’s support has dropped by half.
For some added background, there’s also an excellent discussion at this PBS NewsHour video below.
Judy Woodruff interviews Dan Balz and J. Ann Selzer, of the Washington Post and Selzer & Company, respectively. The talk focuses mostly on Gingrich’s amazing lead in Iowa — with just weeks remaining until the caucuses — and on what must happen for the other candidates from Romney on down. Frankly, to hear these analysts, there’s not a lot of hope for anyone besides Ron Paul, who Selzer indicates has an extremely well-established ground game in Iowa.
But let’s say Newt holds the lead in the polls all the way to January 3. Sure, the race is dynamic, and 60 percent at the Des Moines Register poll indicate they could still change their minds, but Newt’s got the Big Mo’. So, if he does well in the Hawkeye State, what chance does Gingrich have to secure the GOP nomination?
Structurally, the 2012’s primary process is conducive to a long nomination fight. Specifically, proportional representation requirements are in place for states holding their contests before April 1. That means that a number of key early states have eliminated winner-take-all apportionment of their convention delegates, and thus second-or third-place showings could keep any of the candidates in contention over the early months of the campaign. Moreover, unlike previous presidential election years, the Republican nominating calendar is surprisingly “backloaded.” The GOP will allow four states a privileged position early in the election season: Iowa, Florida, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, all scheduled for January. Yet just a few more states will hold early contests next year. According to Rhodes Cook:
Rather than a heavily front-loaded calendar, as was the case last time, the 2012 schedule of primaries and caucuses will be spread out across the late winter and spring. As of March 5, 2008, roughly 40 states had voted. As of March 5, 2012, the number of primaries and caucuses that have been held could be as low as 10, according to the tentative calendar prepared by the website Frontloading HQ. That means that on March 5, about 40 states will have yet to vote.
The new calendar is designed to produce a long-running nominating campaign that will keep Republicans and their criticism of the president in the news for months on end, just what the Democrats achieved in 2008 with the enduring battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
The elongated structure of the 2012 primaries could be advantageous to Gingrich and something of a nightmare for Romney. In most years the winners in Iowa and New Hampshire can expect a snowball effect of media, money, and increased poll standings. The hope is to capture a wave of momentum that soaks up campaign contributions and popular support, and thus drives also-rans from the race. That’s a far less likely scenario in 2012. Romney now trails Gingrich in Florida, Iowa, and South Carolina. Whatever early knockout strategy Romney was banking on is most likely out the window now, unless something dramatic happens between now and mid-January. In 2008, both Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson quit the race in January following poor showings in Florida and South Carolina, respectively. On the Democrat side, former Democratic vice presidential running-mate John Edwards dropped out of the race after placing a distant third in the Florida primary behind Clinton and Obama. For 2012, neither Romney nor Gingrich can expect an early knockout of their main rival for the nomination.
A lot will also depend on fundraising, and this is where Gingrich has the most to gain by a strong showing in the early states. The former House speaker took in $4 million in the first half of the fourth quarter of 2011. And it’s a good thing too: At the end of the third quarter, Gingrich had just $353,000 in cash on hand, left over from a total fundraising haul of just over $2.8 million. Those numbers are dwarfed by Mitt Romney’s war chest. The former Massachusetts governor had raised more than $32 million by the end of September and the campaign had more than half that amount with cash on hand. Those kinds of reserves — not to mention Romney’s big advantages among both corporate backers and individual contributors — give Mitt staying power and will make it difficult for Newt to put things away early on. Indeed, USA Today reports that Romney’s fundraising prowess exceeds that of Obama in key states for the general election.
Romnn. Romney will be able to fight for the nomination down to the home stretch, and he’ll replenish his war chest with victories in some of the early contests, especially New Hampshire, where he continues to lead in the polls.
Gingrich could however partially neutralize Romney’s edge by racking up some victories in the January contests. The former Speaker’s position is akin to Senator John McCain’s in 2008. McCain, in July of 2007, was on the verge of dropping out of the race. He chose to make a gambler’s bid on victory in the New Hampshire primary, where he’d won eight years earlier in his failed campaign for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination. McCain took the Granite State in 2008 with 37 percent of the vote and went on to key victories in the South Carolina and Florida primaries — despite being outspent in the Sunshine State by Romney (on his first run for the White House) by a 3-to-1 margin. McCain then consolidated his status as the frontrunner and Romney dropped out of the race on February 7 after disappointments in all the early states save Michigan (where he was the favorite son). The Arizona senator went on to secure enough delegates for the nomination by early-March. It was an astonishing performance for a candidate who as late as December 2007 was lugging his own bags at the airport to catch coach flights back to Manchester.
Gingrich is now in a commensurate position. For the last month or so, Romney’s numbers have been deteriorating as caucus and primary voters have taken a close look at the former speaker’s campaign. Just before the GOP debate in Iowa on December 10, respondents to the Des Moines Register poll ranked Gingrich best on political experience, public policy expertise, and debate performances. None of those will likely take a hit in the short term, and indeed, Gingrich performed well in the Iowa debate on Saturday, in contrast to Romney who struggled with a muddled message and a potentially damaging gaffe in the $10,000 bet he made to Governor Rick Perry of Texas. Gingrich’s only potential danger was his admission of personal marital failures — and he said he trusted the voters to weigh his character before casting their votes for the nomination.
So, what’s the bottom line? Things could still change in the three weeks left until the Iowa caucuses. But the race is now fairly settled with all eyes on Gingrich and Romney. Among the second-tier candidates, Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul may pull off breakout performances in Iowa, and they’d need that to garner momentum heading into the later contests. But there may not be much time left for Perry or former Senator Rick Santorum, both of whom seemed somewhat resigned to their lagging fortunes at the Iowa debate. What’s left will be for Gingrich to continue to make the case for his candidacy as the pragmatic alternative to the erstwhile frontrunner Romney. No doubt he’s got a lot of baggage that’s cringe-worthy for a substantial contingent of the Tea Party base of the Republican primary electorate — think Dede Scozzafava — but those liabilities will continue to recede as long as no new epic political bombshells blast Gingrich from his newfound redoubt as favorite for the 2012 GOP nomination.
See also here at PJM at the Tatler: Romney Hits Gingrich Hard with Double Barreled Video Shot