22 January 2012

After Newt's Sweet Caroline Victory

Newt Gingrich with wife Callista Gingrich after winning the 2012 South Carolina Primary 

After placing fourth in both the Iowa Caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA 6th) came roaring back with a decisive victory in the South Carolina primary.  Gingrich’s thirteen point victory over the presumed front-runner former Governor Mitt Romney (R-MA) came in spite of a last minute hatchet job interview with Newt’s second wife on the eve of Palmetto State primary.

The South Carolina primary prides itself  as being the first in the South primary. But for Republicans, South Carolina also has picked the winner of the Republican nomination since 1980.  Typically, the Iowa Caucuses have a dark horse candidate prevailing but that contrarian New Hampshire voters reject.  As the next contest for the nomination, South Carolina tends to pick the front-runner, which bolsters the momentum (and money) for later contests.

At the start of the week, Romney was polling around ten points higher than Gingrich.  But there were two debates in South Carolina where other candidates directly took it to Mitt and Romney could not coast above the fray.  While Romney did not have major oops moments (sic), his performance was not stellar and Mitt’s clumsy responses to calls to release his personal tax forms seem to have stuck in the craw of voters.  So the swing of over twenty points from Romney to Gingrich was dramatic.

The ABC ambush interview with Marianna Gingrich was intended to tarnish Newt’s conservative credentials, especially with evangelicals, at the “revelation” that he wanted an open marriage with his second wife.  Gingrich had previously admitted that he had a messy personal life but that he had repented.  But when John King lead off CNN’s Thursday debate with a tawdry question, Gingrich was prepared to play hardball and knocked it out of the park.

The first five minutes of the Battle for the South debate vaulted Gingrich’s standing. Newt expressed outrage at the media for the triviality of the question, evoked sympathy for character assassination on the eve of a primary and invasive probing his personal life.  As far or the rest of the debate, Gingrich’s perry’s against Bain Capital did not sell and his reiterated idea of long term immigration status being decided by WWII styled draft boards was not particularly convincing.  But viewers appreciated Newt’s fighting spirit and slams against the elite media.

To try and understand Gingrich’s victory in South Carolina, it is worth considering data from exit polling.   The polling showed that 64% of those surveyed indicated that the debates mattered in their support, so Newt’s two standing ovations last week in debates translated into votes.  The data also showed that 53% of participants made up their minds in the last few days, which indicates the fluidity of support.  South Carolinian voters echoed the importance of electability with 45% indicating this is the most important factor in pulling the lever.  Only 17% of voters thought that character was a crucial quality.  A surprising data point was that 36% of women supported Gingrich, despite the damning ABC interview.   Moreover, Gingrich may have been aided by the evangelical vote, despite the last minute hit job, as evangelicals are disposed to not support Mormon candidates during the primaries.

This unclear campaign situation is terra nova for the GOP, as there have been three different winners of nomination contests.  Iowa was an extremely close race, but as the Hawkeye Cauci results were announced this week, former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) beat Gov. Romney by 34 votes.  As expected, Romney handily won in New Hampshire.  And Gingrich wooed a decisive double digit win in South Carolina.

If momentum were the only factor, an observer would be led to the prima facie conclusion that Gingrich was going all the way.  However,  there are several factors which are cause to pause in leaping to that conclusion.

Firstly, it is crucial to consider the nature of the forthcoming races.  In smaller states like New Hampshire, Iowa and to a large extent South Carolina, political advertising is either inexpensive or ineffective so retail politics is key.  Not  so for the Sunshine State. Florida accelerated its primary schedule to  capitalize on the aura of early contests.  But it is a state with ten media markets, three of which are in the top twenty.  That means that it will be expensive to get the message out.  So even if Newt can capitalize on being front runner quickly, he will either have to go into debt or not have the resources to effectively advertise in Florida.  But to be fair, Gov. Romney outspent John McCain in 2008 but still lost Florida.

A second calendar consideration that might moot Newt’s momentum is the number of caucuses after Florida.  After the Florida primary on January 31st, Maine and Nevada will hold caucuses on February 4th and Colorado and Minnesota will hold caucuses on February 7th.  The key to success in caucuses is organization and resources. Romney excelled at early fund-raising and anticipated a long march towards the nomination.  Perhaps Mitt learned from then Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) in the 2008 Democrat Presidential nomination, which was a close race for delegates.  Obama kept racking up convincing victories in caucuses like Idaho, where the Democrats had no chance of winning in the general, but proportional delegate rules still gave him 75% of the delegates.

Considering the next set of races, Romney is poised to do well, as Maine is likely to support a centrist oriented Republican from a neighboring state.  Moreover, residual good will from Romney’s work in saving the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics and Mormon identity politics should bode well for Mitt.  Although Missouri holds a primary on February 7th, it is a beauty contest and delegates will be chosen in a caucus on March 17th.

Newt prides himself on being an unconventional candidate, making a virtue out of running his campaign on a shoestring budget.  That traditionally does not bode well for caucuses, as a candidate must motivate participants spending several hours arguing with their neighbors at ad hoc venues, rather than quickly casting a vote at a familiar polling place.

Although libertarian oriented Rep. Dr. Ron Paul (R-TX 14th ) is not likely to do well in Florida, as it is a closed primary with expensive media markets, expect Paulistinians to be in full force at various caucuses, where true believers can boost Dr. Paul’s delegate count.

Another variable which could diminish Gingrich as a shooting star is Newt’s tendency to implode when he is riding high.  Critics charge that when Gingrich stops being a successful insurgent and sows his oats being on top that is undisciplined style and his penchant towards grandiosity diminish his effectiveness and alienates allies.  For example, when Gingrich was top of the polls in early December, a self styled philosopher king suggested that former UN Ambassador John Bolton would be someone Gingrich would like as a prospective Secretary of State.  This Newtonian pronouncement was perilous as he seemed to be naming Cabinet positions before the first ballot was cast in the primaries. Moreover, Bolton then came out in support of his rival Mitt Romney.

In the buzz leading up to the South Carolina primary, Gingrich reiterated his call for other non-Romney conservative candidates to drop out. While Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) acceded due to his anemic standings, Santorum questioned the hubris of Gingrich willingly winnowing the conservative field as he had not won anything yet.

Gingrich’s victory speech in South Carolina renewed the quixotic call for seven three hour Lincoln-Douglas styled debates.  This challenge plays to Newt’s strength as a debater as well as allowing for President Obama’s need to use teleprompters.  But Gingrich is deluded if he thinks that an incumbent President will grant more than one debate.  And Newt’s taunt to follow the President around to embarrass the incumbent into debates is flawed strategy.

It seems that Newt  can not help saying something “special” every few days which mars an overall message.  Newt’s ways may get him into hot soup as the limelights return to the perceived front-runner.

One of Neil Diamond’s most popular songs is Sweet Caroline.  It is an emotive tune that is often used at to entertain fans at  sporting events.  Yet  when one considers the words to Sweet Caroline, there is not much there lyrically.  The Gingrich campaign is right to celebrate along with the lyrics like  “Sweet Caroline--Good times never felt so good. I’m inclined to think that they never would.”  But as the public  focus returns to Gingrich, empty amped up anthems amongst true believers is not going to win support from independents and battleground state voters.

An intriguing theory for understanding the results from South Carolina is that voters were neither  supporting Gingrich as a candidate per se nor his policy positions but what he represents.  The base is not enamored to Romney’s candidacy in the primaries, so this decision could be seen as a temporary galvanization of “Not Romney” voters.  Gingrich likes to claim the support of former Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK) but if you listen closely, she said that if she were a South Carolina voter she would support Newt to keep the process going.  That is hardly a diehard endorsement.  Exit polling shows that debates heavily influenced voters.  It is reasonable to surmise that voters liked the fight that Gingrich offered, particularly against the media and President Obama.

It is possible that Floridians once  again could decide the Presidency, or perhaps just the Republican nominee.  But do not be surprised if this is a prolonged fight for the nomination, as it was during the 1976 cycle with incumbent  President Gerald Ford and then former Governor Ronald Reagan (R-CA).  In such an instance, delegates totals  will become  instrumental to clinch it before the convention.

By moving its primary up to January , Florida and South Carolina supposedly will only receive half their number of delegates.  With the GOP convention in Tampa, it is hard to believe that such a penalty will stick.  But as of March, delegate allotment will universally switch to winner take all results.  If the two leading candidates split on state victories after Florida, it is conceivable that Ron Paul will hold out for a steep price for his garnered  delegates.  And it is possible that Republicans could go into their convention without a clear winner.  After the first vote at the convention, anything goes and dark horses may emerge.

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