Newt Gingrich did not defeat Mitt Romney on Saturday. He thumped him. Gingrich won in all but three counties in the Palmetto State, and won every age and income demographic with one exception. Mr. Romney won among those who make more than $200,000 per annum. The 1% stood by their own.
The size of Gingrich’s victory was startling and it was principally the result of a single fact, one unlikely to repeat itself: Gingrich had a great week last week and Romney had a dreadful week. If they had both had good weeks, or more likely, both had so-so weeks, the margin would have been tighter. But, going forward, it is vital that both campaigns focus in particular on why Newt’s week was so good and why Mitt’s was so bad as they craft their strategy for the rest of the race.
Newt’s week was great for him for two reasons. First, he delivered two stellar debate performances, playing to the crowd, bringing them to their feet, delivering up the kind of red meat that appeals to the GOP base. Second, the potentially damaging interview given by his second wife, I which she charged that Newt had asked her for an “open marriage,” turned out to be a godsend. When CNN’s John King raised the issue in a debate, Gingrich turned the question on the questioner, shaming him for raising a personal issue when the country faces such enormous problems. It was a dodge, to be sure. But, Gingrich played on the already existing hostility to the media to hit a home run. Additionally, as Kathleen Parker explained yesterday, the interview with Marianne Gingrich, coming when it did just days before the vote, and long after Mr. Gingrich had admitted he had made mistakes in his personal life, had the feel of a dirty campaign trick rather than the feel of a significant revelation. When Newt said that everyone in the hall knew someone who had experienced pain in their personal life, he was stating the obvious. Almost half of all marriages end in divorce, and divorces are always painful, even if they are not vitriolic and nasty.
Romney’s week was terrible and that also stemmed from two distinct reasons. First, the danger with running a campaign of “inevitablility” is a dangerous proposition. Ask Hillary Clinton. For one thing, you are telling people who have not yet made their wishes known that it doesn’t really matter what they think because you already have the race sowed up. Mitt’s inevitability argument also raised expectations that he would need to win South Carolina, making his thumping look worse. Second, Romney’s debate performances were exceedingly weak, especially when asked about whether or not he would release his taxes, as his father had done. Romney’s reply – “maybe” – captured exactly the portrayal of him as a man who doesn’t know his own mind, as a “well lubricated weathervane” in Jon Huntsman’s memorable words. And, by failing to release his tax returns, Romney spent the rest of the contest talking not about his vision for the country but about why he was reluctant to share such essential information with the voters.
Campaigns are narratives. The narrative is driven by the characters, but it includes a series of events, some predictable, some not. It is hard to know what will happen when Romney does release his tax returns: How much does he make per annum? What about the off-shore accounts? I suspect we will learn that Mr. Romney, like all good Mormons, tithes to his church and that many conservative evangelicals will respect him for doing so, even if they are a bit taken a back by just how much 10% of his income is. But, most importantly, Romney still has to fashion the correct critique of Gingrich. Yesterday, Romney cited the fact that Gingrich had been forced to resign the Speakership in the 1990s, but I suspect that is like John King’s question: It sets up Gingrich to reply that he had been fighting with the establishment in Washington for four years and they were tired of it. Romney would be better advised to go after Gingrich’s post-speakership tenure, specifically his work for Freddie Mac. In Florida, where under-water mortgages and foreclosures are as common as swampgrass, the link to Freddie Mac could be damaging. Romney was closest to finding the right attack line when he asked of Gingrich’s time working with Freddie Mac, “What was his work product there?” Gingrich will have a hard time sustaining his anti-establishment rants if he is exposed as a top-flight influence peddler himself.
Gingrich can count on the fact that this week there are two more debates, but then the stage goes dark for a bit and there is only one more scheduled debate before Super Tuesday in March. (You can bet Mr. Romney’s campaign will not be agreeing to more debates either.) The debates have functioned well for Gingrich in two ways. First, he really is a good debater. Second, the debates are financial equalizers because they garner so much attention and don’t cost the candidates a dime. In their absence, Romney’s financial advantages can come to the fore as the only thing on television that voters see will be paid political advertisements and news accounts of staged political events.
Gingrich’s challenge, of course, is to exercise self-discipline. Just as Romney’s inevitability argument hurt him, Gingrich needs to be a bit more humble about his past accomplishments. He tends to inflate his importance in history in ways that could backfire. He helped Reagan turn the economy around. He helped Reagan and Thatcher defeat communism. &c. You half-expect Newt to one day announce that he and God both rested on the seventh day. And while some of his statements, such as the need to instill the work ethic in young people, draw resounding applause, others of his ideas, such as his thoughts about shutting down courts, are frightening.
Going in to Florida, I give Newt the edge there. Yes, Romney has more money and in a state with ten different media markets, that is no small thing. But, there are two debates this week that offset that financial advantage. As well, as a really first-rate article in this morning’s Washington Post indicates, Florida is now a state of suburbs, and people in the suburbs will, I predict, warm to Gingrich’s ability to paint a meta-narrative of American greatness. When asked about suburban voters, Bob Graham, a popular former governor and U.S. Senator from Florida, told the paper, “They went to school somewhere else, they got married somewhere else, they raised their kids somewhere else, they spent most of their lives somewhere else. How to get new arrivals to feel a sense of participation in Florida is a challenge.” Gingrich’s heartfelt, although historically suspect, rendering of the story of America is designed to connect with these hard-to-reach suburbanites. They may not know their neighbors. They may not vote for city council. But, they are Americans and have they chosen to exercise their right to be left alone by moving to the kind of new communities where there are few communal ties. Gingrich’s brand of anti-elitist, hyper-individualistic, meta-narrative of American greatness may do no more than convince them that they were endowed by their Creator with the right to watch satellite TV, but that may be enough.