History Says Republicans Will Lose Big Behind Gingrich
Newt Gingrich blew away Mitt Romney in South Carolina. But the self-professed “historian” should be looking back to the last times insurgent groups of partisans toppled establishment nominees: the 1972 Democratic Primary and the 1964 Republican Primary. And Republicans of all stripes should be afraid.
Credit where credit is due: Newt Gingrich did the nearly-impossible. He turned two strong debate performances into a twenty-something-point swing in the polls in South Carolina, upending the “electability” narrative of Mitt Romney once again. He and his outside backers tossed millions of dollars into the Palmetto State to do it, and must now scramble on to Florida, an even bigger market. As he does, his opponents (and voters) might want to take a closer look at history.
Despite his loss, Mitt Romney (and Ron Paul, though their voter bases don’t overlap) is actually running a national campaign. Romney has had the airwaves to himself in Florida until now, and it showed in the polls, even now as Gingrich’s momentum rises. (Paul has the money and time to be a serious menace in the caucus states that will follow the Sunshine State primary, with their arcane rules and procedural methods for electing delegates.)
What about Gingrich? As the Romney camp pointed out in a handy chart, Gingrich is not even on the ballot in Virginia, has an incomplete slate of delegates in Tennessee, and may have more procedural mines waiting for him the longer the season drags on. He is just not organized, and, as his erratic campaigning in South Carolina demonstrated, he’s never going to be organized, whether up or down in the polls. He’ll have to rely on national momentum to barrel through.
In fact, it’s partially that lack of organization that makes Gingrich so resurgently endearing to conservative primary voters. Everyone, they think, loves the underdog. The fact that Gingrich has twice (in this political season alone) made himself the underdog by refusing to run a good campaign should be setting off major warning bells in their heads. For a few of them, it does – that’s why they’re finally backing Romney, or taking their ball and going home (read: backing Rick Santorum, who has no chance whatsoever to catch Romney or Gingrich at this point but will make his endorsers feel good about their moralizing selves).
But the Republican primary electorate is angry. We lost in 2008, they say, ignoring the fact that they were going to lose in 2008 no matter what. And we ran some moderate establishment politician. Never mind that what wound up turning a fairly close race into an electoral landslide against McCain was his own erratic decisions, like, say, nominating Sarah Palin for VP without vetting her, or “suspending his campaign.” Clearly, say the voters, he was not conservative enough.
We’ve seen this become GOP voter orthodoxy, but not party orthodoxy. Think back to the 2010 midterms, which not only sent in a wave of animated first-time lawmakers who are now causing intra-party ngridlock, but also ousted more old-fashioned Republicans, notably Bob Bennett (R-UT). The failure to take the Senate in 2010 because candidates like Christine “Not A Witch” O’Donnell in Delaware won the GOP primary instead of the actually-electable Rep. Mike Castle did alert some voters to the idea of “nominating someone who has a shot at winning” (this is why Romney is doing as well as he is), but the fury remained.
This behavior is not new. It happened with the Democrats in 1968. A voter base livid with the departing incumbent and his seemingly-handpicked nominee wound up handing the election (which was really already going to go their way to begin with) to the other party in a landslide. In 1972, those newly-orthodox voters said “never again” and, out of a weak field, picked a candidate that looked and talked more like them but lacked the organization to compete against a well-funded incumbent: Senator George McGovern.
The result? Well, see for yourself. McGovern won one state (Massachusetts) plus D.C.
Gingrich, like McGovern in 1972, could actually cobble together a strange sort of platform and tilt at windmills long past Florida. Rank-and-file Republicans seem to be entertaining the prospect, and the media would love to see a longer horse race between him and Romney, feeding his need for momentum in lieu of organization. But for however much Gingrich accuses Romney of being the candidate that’s going to lose to Obama, all the polls out there show Gingrich losing by far worse margins. He’d get clobbered in Ohio. He’s losing in Texas. Last time they asked, he was even losing in… South Carolina.
And while Romney has proven that he can build a retail campaign, even if he looks wobbly when he goes off-message, Gingrich has no retail campaign or “on-message” to begin with. Some of his plans for winning the nomination are downright farcical. Does Gingrich really think that a sitting President will agree to seven three-hour “Lincoln-Douglas style debates?” The Commission on Presidential Debates, which sets these things up, isn’t even going to entertain that notion, and just like when House Republicans blocked the payroll tax cut, Gingrich is going to look unreasonable if he stamps his foot and refuses to debate at all.
Gingrich lives in a fantasy land, just as Republicans did when they nominated the unpalatable “true conservative” Barry Goldwater in 1964. The result back then? Well, he won more states than McGovern did (6), but suffered the largest popular vote drubbing in the modern history of American politics to Lyndon Johnson, a sitting president whose social policies were to the left of Obama’s and whose re-election was a mandate to continue those policies.
Some Republicans do see the cliff they’re at risk of heading off. A “Mitt-leaning GOPer” told the long-time political journalist Tom DeFrank quite bluntly: “Newt means losing 45 states.” At the debate tonight in Tampa, Romney is going to have to make that point clearly while providing some semblance of positive vision beyond his usual boring platitudes. He hasn’t managed to pull that off in some time.
History is staring Gingrich in the face. But Gingrich has always thought of himself as a Hegelian “world-historical figure,” someone who breaks all prior precedents. A recent attack-release from the Romney camp, picked up by the New York Times, cites statements in which Gingrich has compared himself to, in part, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Woodrow Wilson, Henry Clay, Charles de Gaulle, William Wallace, the Duke of Wellington, Thomas Edison, Vince Lombardi, the Wright brothers, Moses, and “a Viking.” That’s quite a list. Nobody thinks Gingrich is quite up in that league, except perhaps Newt Himself (or the Minnesota Vikings). But Gingrich could break precedents in at least one regard: losing to Obama worse than Goldwater lost to Johnson.
It may seem early to be considering all of this. As noted, even if Gingrich wins Florida, he’s got a long, hard procedural slog ahead of him that his opponents actually, you know, prepared for. But Romney and other Republicans need to be raising the issue now. If the Gingrich ball gets rolling down the hill this time, the GOP had better get ready for a very confusing four years in political shambles.
Maybe Newt will bring the Wagner soundtrack and the horned helmets.
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Photo credit: Gage Skidmore.
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