Explaining The GOP Attraction To Gingrich

Gingrich is rising in the polls for reasons that help him in the primary race, but may hurt in a General Election.

The one question that political observers have been asking themselves over the past several weeks as we’ve seen Newt Gingrich rise in the polls to the point where he may now arguably be called the frontrunner for the GOP nomination is how it could have possibly happened. As has been noted repeatedly here and elsewhere, Newt Gingrich’s personal and political baggage suggest, at least at first glance, that he’d be a horrible match for the conservative base of the party, especially in states like Iowa and South Carolina where evangelicals and Tea Party supporters dominate the electorate. Newt’s personal record is well known, and while some of the worst stories, such as serving his wife with divorce papers while she was dying of cancer, have been debunked, the general facts have been out there for years. Politically, though, Gingrich’s incompatibility with the conservative wing of his party is what makes his rise in the polls even more puzzling. For the past 13 years, Gingrich has worked and lobbied for some of America’s biggest interest groups to advance their interest, which in all cases included massive expansion of the government. Even leaving aside that, Newt’s own erratic style and the criticisms of his leadership while Speaker suggest that he really would not be fit to be President.

And yet, like I said, he’s leading in the polls and seems to have enough momentum behind him to carry him through to Iowa, and possible New Hampshire. So, the question is why this is happening and why other candidates that are arguably better on the issues than Gingrich — Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman — come to mind aren’t doing better than someone like Newt.

Matt Lewis has one theory that he shared in his Daily Caller blog yesterday:

Clearly, Gingrich’s debating ability is key. Republicans are champing at the bit to see him debate Obama. But I think this urge is deeper than a desire to simply watch him beat up or attack the president rhetorically — they also want him to intellectuallyflatten him — to out-debate him.

There are other reasons. Some voters are romantic; they want to believe in something. They want to be (as unconservative as it may sound) a bit revolutionary. There’s nothing romantic or revolutionary about Mitt Romney. Gingrich supporters may be deluding themselves, but he is, at least, exciting. He has panache.

He’s also a happy warrior. He has energy. He loves campaigning. It makes him stronger, not weaker. And it shows.

… And, of course, there’s the fact that Gingrich just had good timing. He peaked at the right time.

The last — and probably most important argument for Newt Gingrich — is that he’s not Mitt Romney. And if you buy the argument that this is now a two-man race, that might be a deciding factor. Time is dwindling. Newt may be the only alternative — so maybe he’s not so bad? (The Germans have a word for this: Mut der Verzweiflung — the courage born of desperation.)

The debating ability/”Happy warrior”  argument is one that I hear frequently from Gingrich supporters. To be sure, Gingrich’s performance in the Republican debates to date has been a rhetorical tour de force, and no doubt entertaining to the red meat conservatives that seem to be flocking to him. On more than one occasion, he’s turned the tables on debate moderators and questioners, something that goes over really well in a GOP that is highly suspicious of the media to begin with. Additionally, whatever one might say about his academic credentials and his judgment, Gingrich clearly has command of facts in a wide variety of public policy areas that candidates like Perry, Bachmann, and the departed Herman Cain simply don’t have. So, in a debate, Gingrich comes across as intelligent, enthusiastic, and willing to take on opponents. That stands in stark contrast to more sober candidates like Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman.

There’s just one problem I have with the argument that Gingrich’s debating skills, such as they are, will be a positive when it comes time to appear for the three Presidential debates that will occur in September and October of 2012. For one thing, the format of those debates is going to be far, far different from the debates that Gingrich has participated in so far. The moderator and reporters will mostly likely predominantly be from mainline news organizations, and the questions are likely to be far more detailed, for one thing. For another, Gingrich would be standing next to the President of the United States, not just a bunch of people who think they can be President. The difficulty of competing with that image shouldn’t be underestimated, just ask people like Walter Mondale, Bob Dole, and John Kerry. Finally, I think Republicans vastly underestimate how the President is likely to come across in those debates, and overestimate how well Gingrich will do. Say what you will about the President, but Barack Obama is no slouch as a debater, something he proved during the primary race with Hillary Clinton in 2008 and in the General Election.The idea that he’s going to cower in fear over Newt Gingrich is just silly. As for Gingrich, the same qualities that have helped in appeal to GOP voters in the Republican debates could make him come across as arrogant and egomaniacal in the more disciplined atmosphere of a General Election debate. Those Republicans eager for a Newt-Obama matchup on debate nights should be careful what they wish for.

Lewis has a point that Gingrich’s more energetic form of conservatism has an appeal to voters that cannot be discounted, but, again, that’s a quality that could end up coming back to bite them if they make him their nominee. This is the same Newt Gingrich who offended many outside the GOP with his over-the-top comments about the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” and his recent comments about child labor come across to some as demeaning of minority and poor families with his suggestion that they don’t have a work ethic. He has an record of making appalling statements about fundamental individual rights. And, most importantly, he has a history of just throwing ideas out there without really thinking about them, if he does that during the Presidential campaign his reputation as something of an intellectual gadfly is  likely to return. Again, this is a quality that clearly appeals to Republican primary voters but may not help much when it comes to winning a General Election.

Gingrich has benefited most, of course, from the fact that he is the “Not Romney” who happens to be peaking at what looks to be the optimal time. Absent a major gaffe, he’s likely to stay around where he is in the polls through the end of the month, meaning that it’s more and more likely that the GOP will end up with a two-man race by the time January is over. When they get to that point, though, they need to ask themselves if those things they like about Gingrich are for real, and whether they’re really going to help them win the White House.

Historical analogies are never perfect. However, right now, the Republican race seems to be looking a lot like the 1972 Democratic primary race.  In that race, Edmumd Muskie was the steady establishment  candidate, perhaps not as liberal as someone like McGovern, but also looking like he would have a far better chance of beating Nixon than a candidate that was clearly only appealing to the base of the Democratic Party. In the end, though, the Democrats handed the baton to McGovern, and we all know what happened after that. If the Republicans go for the McGovernite Gingrich, they could end up suffering a similar fate.

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FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, US Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    how it could have possibly happened.

    Here is my theory: Republicans are crazy.

  2. Moosebreath says:

    “In that race, Edmumd Muskie was the steady establishment candidate, perhaps not as liberal as someone like McGovern, but also looking like he would have a far better chance of beating Nixon than a candidate that was clearly only appealing to the base of the Democratic Party. In the end, though, the Democrats handed the baton to McGovern, and we all know what happened after that.”

    Note that the Democrats had some underhanded help from the sitting President such asthe Canuck Letter in making that decision.

  3. legion says:

    My theory, FWIW, is that Republicans need a Big Daddy figure – someone to come in and tell them “there, there – it’s ok. I’ll make all these hard decisions for you.” Now, there’s nobody in the current crop with that kind of macho vibe – Perry could have spun it, but never quite did. And the only other person with that kind of personality is Newt. He’s very used to walking into a room and setting himself as the alpha dog, and Republicans respond to that like nobody’s business.

  4. john personna says:

    The Values Party is bankrupt, and is now only the Saying Values Party.

  5. ponce says:

    Gingrich has escaped from Elba.

    The Republican base longs for past glory.

    Obama= Wellington.

  6. michael reynolds says:

    GOP base voters are a bit stupid and as someone said, Gingrich is a dumb person’s idea of a smart person. And GOP voters are fueled by anger and resentment and Gingrich perfectly embodies those emotions. It’s actually a perfect match.

    In a debate with Obama it won’t be about debating points — though Obama would clean Gingrich’s clock. It will be about who can stand to spend 4 years with. Again, Obama will clean his clock.

  7. de stijl says:

    Explaining The GOP Attraction To Gingrich

    He’s a dick. He has a proven track record of dickishness.

    (Or if you’re a fan of that style, he is combative and uncompromising.)

    For some reason, Republicans now demand that a Presidential candidate be a dick.

    Also, from the quoted Matt Lewis article:

    He loves campaigning.

    Most definitely not. He loves face time on TV. Or at least he’s proven that he doesn’t like campaigning in the sense that you go to Iowa and / or New Hampshire and actually talk to voters.

  8. sam says:

    @Doug

    He has an record of making appalling statements about fundamental individual rights.

    You and I find them appalling, but I’ve no doubt a large swath of the base of the GOP finds them obviously true. A very large swath.

  9. MBunge says:

    “Barack Obama is no slouch as a debater, something he proved during the primary race with Hillary Clinton in 2008 and in the General Election, the idea that he’s going to cower in fear over Newt Gingrich is just silly.”

    Doug, relatively sane guys like you don’t appreciate the warped view many conservatives have of Barack Obama. Instead of the smart, fairly moderate pragmatist everyone else sees, they look at him and see someone who is simultaneously a staggeringly incompetent boob and a viciously un-American radical. I mean, liberal hatred of Reagan and Bush II and right wing hatred of Clinton was usually based on some actual trait or feature of those men and their character, even if it was exaggerated to ridiculous degrees. Yes, there were kooks who thought Clinton might be an agent of the KGB or that Bush II might suspend elections, but most hardcore partisans never got near that stuff. However, that sort of self-serving fiction is at the heart and soul of conservative thinking on Obama.

    You cannot overestimate the conservative need to have their view of Obama validated, see him “exposed” before the world and have everyone else proven wrong.

    Mike

  10. Ron Beasley says:

    Ramesh Ponnuru has a take down of Gingrich at Bloomberg but the entertainment is in the comments section.

  11. Scott F. says:

    @MBunge:

    This is it exactly. Note the contradiction inherent in these two ideas:

    a staggeringly incompetent boob and a viciously un-American radical

    Obama is incompetent and effectively destroying “America as We Know It” at the same time. How does he do it?

    Oh, and… teleprompter.

  12. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Matt Lewis is overestimating the GOP primary selectorate. Newt’s erstwhile debating skills are red herrings. At the margins there might have been some minor effect there, but in no way do they explain Newt going from essentially zero to being the frontrunner.

    What’s happening here is that a large percentage of the GOP primary selectorate are sheeple and they’re moving in lock step from one empty suit candidate to another. Newt just happens to have had the most fortuitous timing. Go back and check out the polling data:

    Cain’s rise happened exactly after Palin opted out of running. Palin’s mindless supporters moved in lock step over to Cain,. Cain just so happened to be the candidate they knew the least about and who had the least qualifications and the flimsiest track record. For the sheeple blocs those are positive traits. Newt’s rise corresponded nearly exactly to Cain’s fall. Again, the same people who mindlessly shifted from Palin to Cain then shifted from Cain to Gingrich. Gingrich too is someone who’s been out of the spotlight for so long the sheeple viewed him as a blank slate, which is a positive from their standpoint given how their minds work. All of the substantive issues that should be hurting Newt — Fannie, Freddie, big pharma, the prior ethics scandals, the individual mandate, the failed impeachment, the government shutdowns, etc. — are not registering with this demographic for the simple reason they don’t understand any of them. Palin’s and then Cain’s and now Newt’s people wouldn’t know Freddie Mac from an Egg McMuffin. Seriously. They don’t remember the government shutdowns from the mid-1990’s. Separately they wouldn’t even know what that means. You’d have to explain it to them. They don’t remember Newt quitting in disgrace. So on, so forth.

    Newt’s rise in the polls represents a critical mass of the lowest common denominators of the GOP primary selectorate: ignorant retirees and housewives for whom a concrete and positive track record paradoxically is a negative.

  13. James in LA says:

    @Ron Beasley: Ramesh Ponnuru has a take down of Gingrich at Bloomberg but the entertainment is in the comments section.

    Hoo-wah, it certainly is! How does this all come together in less than a year to win a national campaign? My conservative friends are not in a “get along to go along” sort of mood these days…

  14. Rick Almeida says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    Ok, that comments thread is completely nuts, and I only got through about 25 / 600.

  15. Barb Hartwell says:

    The conservatives don`t know where to turn. They are desperate to find someone to embrace as a candidate. Gingrich is winning this round of musical chairs but the game is not over. I cannot understand how Huntsman and Ron Paul have not been ahead of Gingrich. It shows they follow like sheep listening to what the money bags want them to do.

  16. PD Shaw says:

    The last — and probably most important argument for Newt Gingrich — is that he’s not Mitt Romney

    There may be limited truth to that argument. Iowa polls shows that among Gingrich supporters, Romney is named most often as their second choice.

    I think amidst the anti-Romney sentiment there may be a larger “game theory” dynamic in which selectors in early states realize their role will not be significant enough to decide the winning candidate, but the early states often play a very significant role in defining which two or three candidates will be chosen from.

  17. grumpy realist says:

    @Ron Beasley: Between the Ron Paul fanbois and the idiots who think the Democratic party would prefer to go up against Romney…

    I’m hoping Ron Paul leaves politics soon. Not that I have anything against him personally (aside from thinking he’s got only a very tenuous grasp on what putting his ideas into action would actually produce), but his followers are bloody nuts.

  18. JohnMcC says:

    John Podhoretz’ column in the NYPost today explains the attraction: “…GOP primary voters…know him mainly from Fox News…” They are therefore totally ignorant, he’s saying.

  19. MM says:

    @grumpy realist: Yes, but one Ron Paul leaves office, they’ll just all transfer allegiances to Rand Paul.

  20. Fiona says:

    Gingrich is a dumb person’s idea of a smart person. And GOP voters are fueled by anger and resentment and Gingrich perfectly embodies those emotions.

    Having just had this discussion with my elderly parents last night, I think Michael pretty much hits it on the nose. Not that my parents are dumb, but their main source of news is Fox, Rush Limbaugh’s newsletter, and the National Review. So, they absorb a lot of anger and misinformation, which they then pass off as truth.

    They know Newt is essentially corrupt; that he’s spent the past several years selling his soul (not that he actually has one) to various corporate entities; and that he’s every bit the flip-flopper Mitt Romney is. But hey–he’s written lots and lots of books, produced a few films, and has lots of ideas. Compared to most of the other Republican candidates, he comes across well in the debates. Therefore, he must be really, really smart. And he’s not a socialist like Obama. They think the country will be much better off if Newt is president; whereas Obama is going to turn us into Europe (oh the horror!).

    This is the point in the conversation where we lost our connection. When I called them back, I told them it was a sign from G-d that we should stop talking politics. Nothing good can come from it.

  21. Hey Norm says:

    Jonathan Chait:

    “…a campaign against Gingrich is probably something you hope for rather than plan for…”

  22. Brainster says:

    It’s often said that the Democrats fall in love and the Republicans fall in line. In this cycle and the last, it’s more that the Democrats fall in love and get married, while the Republicans have a shotgun wedding. After the Gingrich fling is over, it will be Mitt Romney waiting for Republican voters at the altar.