the national interest

The Newtwening! It Cannot Be Denied!

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

If Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain had never thought about running for president, pretty much everybody would now see Newt Gingrich as the Republican front-runner. He’s soaring in the national polls and building a large lead in the early states, while his main competitor, Mitt Romney, continues to sag. (In the latest Iowa poll, by PPP, those planning to vote in the GOP caucus express a 62-31 percent favorable view of Gingrich, against a 49-45 percent favorable view of Romney.) Because all those other candidates did run, though, and all subsequently collapsed, political reporters are approaching the Gingrich surge skeptically. Gingrich is like the heavy-metal roadie your daughter brings home after having fallen for the motorcycle guy, the drug dealer, and that creepy way-too-old one. She lost interest in all of them, so no reason to worry too much about the latest. Except, of course, it might be a sign she really isn’t going to wind up with the nice accounting student down the street you keep hoping she’ll go out with.

Several reasons have been proffered as to why Gingrich is bound to lose. Here they are, in what I consider descending order of persuasiveness:

Organization. Gingrich lost most of his staff last spring, and it wasn’t a big staff to begin with. He’s running his own campaign out of the hard drive of his feverish brain, and he may lack the resources to take on Romney in an extended fight for delegates.

Clearly this is a major liability. On the other hand, as former GOP operative Matthew Dowd notes, organization is overrated, in part because hired campaign staff persistently spread the myth that organization is crucial. Candidates who have momentum can attract votes without a lot of boots on the ground – most people get their information through mass media, or word of mouth driven by mass media.

Newt’s essential Newtness. The position of the main Romney challenger has been like the Spinal Tap drummer, and now it’s being filled by a guy with a completely independent history of self-destruction. The combination seems to spell doom. On the other hand, there’s not much time between now and the primaries. Newt has mostly managed to hold things together, and odd comments like his affinity for child labor seem not to damage him too badly with the conservative base.

The GOP Establishment hates him. Jonathan Bernstein has made the most confident version of this argument, though others have echoed it as well. Bernstein argues that Republicans understand how erratic and ineffective Gingrich is, and won’t let him get the nomination. I see a couple flaws in this assumption. First, insiders can’t always get their way. The party elite knew full well in 2010 that nominating candidates like Joe Miller in Alaska, Sharron Angle in Nevada, and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware was suicidal. They just couldn’t sway the voters not to nominate them in primaries. And presidential nominations are just a series of primaries. (What’s more, presidential primaries are connected, so that a candidate who wins one can more easily gain momentum and win others.)

Second, we can’t assume that the party insiders will be thinking with perfect clarity about Gingrich’s qualifications. They didn’t stop mendacious buffoon Sarah Palin from getting the vice-presidential nomination – a choice that hurt the party badly. They picked Newt Gingrich as their leader in 1994. Now, both those figures only displayed some of their zany tendencies at the time, but the Republican elite’s crazy radar does not seem to be the most finely tuned instrument.

The voters will get sick of him. This is more of an unstated assumption – Republicans may like the idea of Newt but they won’t like the actual Newt any more than they liked the Trump-through-Cain clown parade. Here’s why I think it’s different. The previous pattern was Republican voters growing infatuated with characters they had never seen before. This made them vulnerable to a boom–bust cycle. When the voters learned something unpleasant, they would decide that this new character must really be a fraud.

Newt has a history. Republicans are accustomed to supporting him. They have a sense of who he is and where he comes from. A bad new data point, or even several, isn’t as likely to completely define the voters’ sense of who he is.

The Newtwening! It Cannot Be Denied!