Ross Douthat on why Gingrich can’t win the GOP nomination:
If Gingrich can’t compete in Florida, he can’t compete nationally.
To date, all of the Republican primary contests have been held in smallish states with distinctive demographic profiles. This made it possible to play up the significance of Gingrich’s convincing South Carolina victory, while downplaying Romney’s New Hampshire win as an independent-abetted, only-in-New-England fluke.
But Florida’s primary was closed to independents, Florida’s electorate was as conservative and Tea Party-friendly (though not as evangelical-heavy) as South Carolina’s and Florida’s large senior population once looked like it would give Gingrich an edge. If the former speaker couldn’t even come close to beating Romney in such relatively favorable terrain, it’s hard to see how he can hope to compete with him anywhere outside the Deep South.
The anti-Romney vote isn’t as big as Gingrich likes to think it is.
As the Florida polls turned against them, Gingrich’s campaign began hinting that Rick Santorum should drop out of the race and give Gingrich a clear shot at consolidating conservatives against Romney. If Santorum weren’t in the race, one of Gingrich’s campaign chairmen in Florida told CNN on Monday, “we would clearly be beating Romney right now.”
But as it turned out, Romney received as many votes as his two nearest rivals combined. And more importantly, pre-primary polls showed that without Santorum in the race, Romney would still have led Gingrich by a wide margin – as much as 16 points, according to an NBC/Marist poll. The fact that a majority of Republicans still have reservations about Romney, in other words, doesn’t mean that a majority would ever vote for Gingrich.
Romney’s down-and-dirty Florida campaign eased right-wing doubts about his toughness.
Romney hammered Gingrich in the debates, and then carpet-bombed him with negative advertisements. 68 percent of the ads that ran in Florida were negative spots attacking Gingrich, and Romney’s only positive ad was a Spanish-language spot that aired 15 times in total. While this gloves-off approach may have tarnished Romney’s image with swing voters, it helped reassure the many conservatives who were attracted to Gingrich because they want a no-holds-barred fighter for the fall campaign.
As John Podhoretz wrote on Monday in the New York Post, Florida was a test of Romney’s mettle: “The clean-cut Boy Scout Ken-doll candidate from Massachusetts needed to show his fellow Republicans that he could be mean, tough and merciless on the attack — that he could take it to his rival and best him.” Consider that mission accomplished.
Ross also cited Gingrich’s “lackluster debate performances” and how hard it will be to regain that “aura of invincibility” as a master debater — a key selling point for Gingrich who seeks to convince GOP voters he can destroy Obama in open debate during the fall campaign.
I don’t think Romney did much convincing as far as his ability to be “tough.” Watching Romney on the attack is like watching a Toy Poodle in a standoff with a Great Dane. He can’t help but look cute rather than ferocious.
That said, Douthat nails the demographics of Newt’s problems. It would be one thing if Gingrich had come within 5 points or so of Romney. Then he’d be crowing about being outspent 13-1 and coming within a yard of paydirt.
But he didn’t. He got slaughtered. And where Gingrich carried every demographic group in South Carolina, he lost most of those same voters in Florida. It’s hard to see where Newt can get his MoJo back anytime soon. Next on the calendar is Nevada (2/4) — where Ron Paul is lying in the weeds waiting to ambush Mitt Romney — and the beginning of the Maine caucus process (2/4-11). The state that sent Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins to the senate would seem to be decidedly unfriendly to Newt’s brand of populist conservatism.
It doesn’t get any easier. On February 7, two more Not-Ready-For-Newt states will hold caucuses; Colorado and Minnesota. Missouri will hold a beauty contest primary with no delegates at stake on the same day. Then on February 28, Arizona and Michigan will hold their primaries. Romney’s ties to Michigan are well known, but Arizona might be more receptive to Newt’s bread and butter message. Whether he will have the cash to compete there is another question altogether.
In short, it’s hard to see at this point where Newt can make a stand and stop the bleeding with a victory. Georgia holds its primary on Super Tuesday (3/6), as do Oklahoma and Tennessee — three states where he has a very realistic shot at competing. But he’s not even on the ballot in Virginia and without the money to compete in Ohio and a deficient organization in the three states holding caucuses that day, Super Tuesday is shaping up to be a Romney avalanche.
But Gingrich declared he plans to defeat “money power” with “people power” in the coming months, casting his campaign as a counterbalance to the “establishment.” That may be. But the history of insurgencies in major parties would suggest that Newt is fighting for principle now, and not the GOP nomination for president.