Gingrich’s Waning Surge and the Evangelical Vote
It’s two weeks before the Iowa caucuses and the Republican primary remains as fluid as ever. So, is the Gingrich surge waning? Can Ron Paul pull an upset in Iowa? And does Romney really need to court the Evangelical vote? Read on to get the latest lay of the land.
A new poll from the Democratic-affiliated Public Policy Polling places Ron Paul first in Iowa, capturing 23 percent of likely voters. Mitt Romney follows with 20 percent and Newt Gingrich is down to 14 percent. The latest Real Clear Politics average from last week’s polling shows Paul leading with 1.4 percentage points, which suggests that between Paul’s attack ads and Romney’s “humanizing” campaign, Iowans are having second thoughts about Gingrich’s candidacy.
In particular, Gingrich hasn’t sealed the deal with Evangelicals. The GOP race has seen the rise and fall of multiple not-Romneys and much of its fluidity can be attributed to the indecisiveness of Evangelicals. Indeed, Evangelicals arguably hold the key to delivering Iowa to any one of the candidates and they are the most elusive bloc this primary season. They demand the most ideological purity yet they aren’t blind to the importance of electability. Had Rick Perry not floundered so badly in the debates, he’d have likely solidified their backing by now. Instead, Evangelicals saddled up behind Herman Cain until his campaign fell apart over sexual harassment allegations. For the better of late November and December the thrice-married Gingrich became the unlikely beneficiary of Cain’s exit, but Michele Bachmann’s strong debate performance last Thursday could aid in a last minute revival of her campaign, and that would cause further problems for Gingrich’s momentum heading into Iowa. There’s a good chance now that the Evangelical vote will end up splitting across several candidates, and that will improve both Romney’s and Paul’s standing in Iowa.
Strategically, the main thrust behind Romney’s candidacy is that he just needs to perform well enough in the early voting states to stymie a genuine insurgency from a more conservative candidate. His tepid relationship with Evangelicals, however, complicates that strategy. At the heart of Romney’s flip-flopping problem has been his changing position on abortion, and, compounded with his Mormon faith, this has been a major source of skepticism and suspicion among Evangelicals. Until recently, Romney had not demonstrated a clear way to engage or bypass Evangelicals. Now that he is placing a greater emphasis on his qualities as a family man and is implicitly drawing a contrast with Gingrich, Romney seems to be hoping he can attain a sliver of a split Evangelical vote.
But largely bypassing Evangelicals, without much repercussion, also remains a viable gambit for Romney. This comes down to Ron Paul’s fervent supporters and the genuine possibility that Paul could place first in Iowa if the Evangelical vote splits. Paul has hardened his grasp on the anti-establishment mantle and his message is resonating among Tea Party-ers who find Perry a policy lightweight and Gingrich a consummate Washington insider. If Paul secures a full blown protest vote in Iowa, a second place finish for Romney will be a default win because it’ll take the wind out of Gingrich’s sails. Furthermore, if either Bachmann or Perry claw their way back into relevancy and effectively tie Gingrich for third place in Iowa, the Evangelical vote could split again in South Carolina. This fracturing of the primary electorate between Evangelicals, Tea Party-ers, and what we might as well call center-right suburban Republicans puts Romney in the strongest position to outlast his financially disadvantaged competitors.
It’s remarkable that only two weeks ago the media were forecasting serious trouble for Mitt Romney’s candidacy and yet now it seems Gingrich is the most embattled among the top tier of candidates. In Sunday’s Tea Party Patriots straw poll of more than 23,000 activists, Gingrich placed first with 31 percent of the vote with Bachmann placing a close second at 28 percent. While neither Perry nor Paul participated in the poll, Bachmann’s competitiveness shows Gingrich is losing his commanding lead among the primary’s most conservative voters. If Gingrich falls below second place in the Iowa caucuses, it will completely dispel the notion that the Republican primary has effectively become a two man race. And the wider open the race remains, the better off Romney will be in the long run.
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