Newt Gingrich has had the wildest ride in a primary season since Bill Clinton weathered womanizing charges in 1992.
Based on his strong performances in the numerous Republican debates, the former House speaker soared to a double-digit polling lead in Iowa in the fall of 2011. But a $4 million onslaught of negative ads by Mitt Romney’s allies sunk Gingrich in Iowa. After his disappointing fifth place finish in the New Hampshire primary, even conservatives began to write him off. National Review endorsed anybody but him, and Rush Limbaugh criticized his “desperate attacks” on venture capitalism. A coalition of Christian conservatives endorsed Rick Santorum the week before South Carolina, and Newt’s candidacy looked dead. Indeed, the post-New Hampshire Rasmussen Reports poll of South Carolina gave Romney a 35-21% lead. It looked like the multi-millionaire businessman was about to close his biggest deal ever. Yet less than six days later, Newt Gingrich came back to win the South Carolina Republican primary by 40-28%. Evidently, the rumors of his political demise had been greatly exaggerated.
How did Gingrich do it? Sure, his debating skills helped, but those same skills didn’t stop his early January collapse. The “friends and neighbors” effect of a Southern primary was probably worth five points or so, but not the full amount he made up in less than a week. The answer is that he kicked over a revolt among conservatives by punching away at two extremely potent themes: 1) that the establishment media is chronically biased against Republicans; and 2) welfare is a failed program that discourages work. As we shall see, those two themes have resonated in the conservative movement since the 1960s.
Republicans have been suspicious of the Eastern media dating back to the 1960 campaign when they believed the press favored John F. Kennedy over Richard Nixon. (In his classic The Making of the President, 1960, JFK fan Teddy White admitted the charge was true: “There is no doubt this cultivation of the press colored all the reporting that came from the Kennedy campaign…”) Four years later, Republican suspicion became sheer hostility when the Eastern press openly attacked Barry Goldwater as a racist mad bomber who’d abolish Social Security. Former President Dwight Eisenhower spoke for many Republicans when he denounced “sensation-seeking columnists” for writing the “tommyrot” that Goldwater would start a nuclear war. Surveys of journalists showing that over 80% of reporters for the biggest media outlets voted for Clinton, Gore, and Barack Obama have only added fuel to the conservative fire.
As for ideology, Republicans often lost on economic issues from 1932 to 1964. However, the GOP began to re-group in 1965, when, after the passage of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, many cities were hit with riots, crime soared, and taxes went up. The new programs simply didn’t seem to be working. Ronald Reagan in 1966 became the first staunch conservative elected governor of a big non-Southern state by attacking a “welfare queen” who received over a dozen checks by using fake IDs and drove a Cadillac (an issue he would later use in his successful presidential runs). Two years later, Nixon won, in part, by running against “the national welfare scandal,” saying his approach was “work, work, throw ’em off the [welfare] rolls.” From 1965 onward, Republicans ran on small government and low taxes – and opposition to social welfare spending, winning most national elections until 2008.
In fact, welfare was unpopular across party lines: polling done by Gallup in the late 1970s and early 1980s showed that over 75% of white Democrats favored making able-bodied welfare recipients work for their benefits. This issue hurt the Democrats so badly that Bill Clinton in the 1996 campaign was finally forced to cut a deal with (ahem) Speaker Gingrich to reform the system and take the issue off the table.
These two old themes – welfare spending and media bias – surfaced in the week before South Carolina voted, and Newt shrewdly used them to resurrect his campaign.
First, the welfare issue: In the January 16 Fox News debate, Juan Williams asked Newt whether it was offensive to say that black people “should demand jobs, not food stamps” and to call Barack Obama the “food stamp president.” Newt’s eyes lit up like slugger Albert Pujols seeing a hanging curveball and he smashed it for a home run: “Well, first of all, Juan, the fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history. … Now, I know among the politically correct, you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable. … And if that makes liberals unhappy, I’m going to continue to find ways to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job and learn some day to own the job.” The crowd repeatedly interrupted Newt with wild applause, and he added later that Republicans “are a party that believes in work.”
Garry Wills wrote that “South Carolina is the honorary home of Southern Republicanism, laid on Goldwater foundations.” It’a hard to imagine another issue that would fire up the “Goldwater foundation” of Republicans as much as having a liberal journalist accuse them of being racist for opposing welfare abuse. Even Amy Walters of ABC admitted, “There is no fatter and more appealing target to an audience of conservative Republicans than the mainstream media.”
The Gingrich counter-attack worked: the next round of polls had the Romney lead over Gingrich cut in half.
The CNN debate on January 19 proved to be an even bigger bonanza for Newt. Earlier that day, ABC News had leaked excerpts from an interview with Gingrich’s second ex-wife Marianne in which she accused him of requesting an “open marriage.” CNN anchor John King opened the debate by asking Newt if he wanted to comment on the ABC story. Newt indignantly replied: “No, but I will.” He immediately stated it was “appalling” that with all the important issues facing the world, King would ask this question first. When King replied by saying that ABC first raised the issue, the studio audience booed him lustily and Newt slammed him again: “Don’t try to blame somebody else. You and your staff chose to start this debate with that.” Newt went on to deny the charge, and blasted away further: “I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans.”
As Bill Mahrer joked on HBO, Newt “beat John King up, took his lunch money and shoved him into a locker.” Romney himself backed away from previous statements that he expected to win South Carolina. By the day before the primary, Newt had surged from 14 points behind in the Rasmussen poll to 2% ahead — all in five days! That surge continued on primary day.
It’s a close call as to what is more unpopular among the Republican base: welfare or the “elite media.” But Newt got to smash at both of them in the same week and it hit home in South Carolina. A week ago, the Republican primary campaign looked like a Romney coronation. Now, thanks to Newt’s agile maneuvering and the debate moderators’ clumsiness, the contest will go on. In the Palmetto State at least, Republicans are still the party of Goldwater and Reagan — and apparently Newt.