Newt Gingrich has become the latest Not Romney to rise to the top of the Republican polls, but many pundits assume that he will meet the same fate as Bachmann, Perry, and Cain before him: a rapid swoon as soon as voters realize what a flawed candidate he is.
It's true that Newt is a deeply flawed candidate, something I know quite well because I wrote a book about him in 1996, Newt Gingrich: Capitol Crimes and Misdemeanors. But being deeply flawed and almost unelectable is no longer a disqualification for Republican nominees in the age of the Tea Party. Yet so many people assume that history will simply repeat itself and Newt will go away like the Not Romneys before him. That's a terrible political mistake to make.
Michael Tomasky writes at the Daily Beast about Gingrich, “The idea that he’s a serious presidential candidate is preposterous. Even if he were the nominee, he’d get about 44 percent of the vote. He’d say crazy things. He’d reignite the whole Obama-is-a-Kenyan-anticolonialist business. Or he’d think up something newer and weirder. He’d be a disaster...He could conceivably do worse in a general election than Herman Cain.” That might be true, but it won't stop Republicans from nominating him.
Tomasky claims, “This Gingrich boomlet is the same thing as the Michele Bachmann boomlet and the Rick Perry boomlet. It’s just people not wanting to say yes to Romney.” Yes, that's true, too. But there are good reasons why the Gingrich boom won't fade. First, Gingrich is a much more serious candidate that Bachmann or Perry. After all, Gingrich was second to Romney (and occasionally first) in the polls throughout most of 2010. Second, there are no more Not Romneys in the Republican bullpen. Rick Perry continues to embarrass himself, only to have attention diverted by Herman Cain continuing to embarrass himself. There is, literally, no one left to be Not Romney.
The conservative segment of the Republican Party tried out every plausible candidate, and a few implausible ones, too. Gingrich is their last hope. Santorum, the only Not Romney conservative yet to take a swing, has fallen behind Jon Huntsman in the polls, which is a clear marker of insignificance. Paul has a core base but his libertarian values simply can't sway conservatives.
There will be no Sarah Palin or Jeb Bush riding in to save the day; it's too late in the process to get a campaign started, and no real enthusiasm for the alternatives. There will be no resurrection of Bachmann, Perry, or Cain: Republican voters have looked at them and found them wanting.
Gingrich is the last, best candidate to fill the position of Not Romney, and Not Romney beats Romney in a landslide. The reason is simple: Romney has been unable to break the 25% barrier in recent polls, and his numbers have sometimes fallen well below that level. His only hope for victory is to have the conservative candidates divide the rest of the vote.
Unfortunately for Romney, the Republican Party changed its primary procedures following the 2008 election where McCain quickly took winner-take-all primaries to secure the nomination early. Winner-take-all primaries might have allowed Romney to squeeze by his conservative competitors in enough early states to prevail. But the proportional allocation of delegates means that the 2012 Republican primary will resemble the 2008 Democratic primary, a lengthy process where two candidates battle it out for months. The problem for Romney is that he can't win a one-on-one battle with any conservative candidate in the current Republican Party.
Is Gingrich the latest Not Romney? Why, yes, of course he is. But he's the last Not Romney, and the best known. Bachmann, Perry, and Cain each fulfilled the Not Romney role this year, but all faltered as voters learned more about them and they fell apart under the pressure. Gingrich, by contrast, is already a known commodity. Republicans who support him now are unlikely to learn anything new about him.
According to the latest Quinnipiac poll (Nov 14-20), Gingrich leads Romney 26 to 22% nationally, and in a head-to-head matchup, Gingrich's lead expands to 49-39. That's deep trouble for Romney. In fact, Romney's position is so desperate that he needs to abandon Iowa because if he defeats any of the conservative candidates in Iowa, they will probably drop out quickly. Romney has to maintain two or three viable conservative candidates in order to divide the Not Romney majority.
Gingrich has good name recognition and unlike all the other Not Romney candidates, his rise to the front came after his major goofs had occurred. Gingrich still faces many problems, the most notable of which is himself. But after his early errors, Gingrich has run a brilliant campaign: attacking the media rather than other Republicans, espousing conservative ideas, and spouting crazy right-wing ideas at every turn.
Unless Republicans make electability the primary basis for picking a presidential nominee, Gingrich is likely to be their candidate for president. And that will be a disaster for the Republican Party. It is hard to imagine Newt Gingrich beating Barack Obama. The current Quinnipiac poll found that Obama beats Romney 45-44, but he leads Gingrich 49-40.
Obama's re-elect numbers are weak by historical standards, but we live in very different political times today, where the hatred of politicians is unprecedented. The public may not like Obama, but they hate every other politician even more. And Gingrich is a politician who is very easy for people to hate.
Despite three years of relentless attacks on Obama by the conservative media, and virtually no press coverage of Gingrich's long history of bad ideas and disturbing behavior, current polls show Obama easily beating Newt.
The only hope Republicans have to defeat Obama is a repeat of the 2010 elections, when Democrats failed to show up for the polls. But if anything can motivate Democrats to vote in 2012, it's the nightmare of imagining President Newt.
To defeat Obama, Gingrich needs a perfect storm: a double-dip recession in an economy that seems headed toward a slow recovery, an unblemished campaign run by Newt the human gaffe machine, terrible mistakes by a president who is one of the best campaigners in recent political history, and billions of dollars in outside spending by conservative billionaires to offset Obama's fundraising advantage. None of these seem likely, and all of them will probably be necessary for Gingrich to stand a chance.
The establishment Republicans are terrified of an Obama vs. Gingrich match-up in 2012, but the Republican Party has been taken over by the far right wing of the party, and they would rather lose to Obama if they can preserve conservative purity. Gingrich, despite his many mistakes and his flip-flopping on previous rational positions (global warming, health insurance mandates, etc), offers the purest form of conservatism. He will win a long battle against Romney for the Republican nomination, and then crash and burn on November 6, 2012.
Crossposted at NewtCrimes.