It's been nearly two days since Newt Gingrich turned the Republican primary battle on its head with his complete rout of Mitt Romney in South Carolina. And while the fight has physically moved to Florida, which will vote on Jan. 31, what we’re really about to see is a nine-day battle waged on the airwaves and in the press over electability - or who would be stronger against President Obama.
To most Beltway types, Romney is still the heavy favorite on this point - not only because he has so many advantages in terms of traditional campaign metrics like money and organization, but also because they see Gingrich as a flat-out disaster. It’s been striking to watch the renewed outpouring of criticism GOP strategists have leveled against Newt, calling him utterly unelectable in a general election (see, for example, former John McCain adviser Steve Schmidt’s tirade on MSNBC, which RealClearPolitics helpfully transcribed:
“Not only are we not moving toward a coalescing of support with the establishment of Newt Gingrich, we’re probably moving toward a declaration of war on Newt Gingrich by the Republican establishment. And if Newt Gingrich is able to win the Florida primary, you will see a panic and a meltdown of the Republican establishment that is beyond my ability to articulate in the English language. People will go crazy.”).
The primary reason for this widespread assumption among Beltway elites that Gingrich would be a truly disastrous nominee is that nationally, most voters already know him, and a high percentage don’t like him - and it’s very, very hard to change that kind of profile. To quote Schmidt again: “Newt Gingrich has a 100% name ID, has a 60% national unfavorable number and it’s a number so high that with the 100% name ID it’s impossible to come back from.”
Actually, according to a recent CBS/New York Times poll, Gingrich’s unfavorable rating is at 49 percent, with 17 percent favorable and the rest undecided - which, while not good, is not quite as terrible as Schmidt describes. Still, every recent head-to-head matchup shows Gingrich losing to Obama by a significantly wider margin than Romney, who, according to most polls, tends to run just a few points behind the president (and has even beat him in a few polls).
On the other hand, Saturday’s results show that many Republican voters no longer agree with the GOP establishment - and in fact, now regard Gingrich as the stronger general-election candidate. Exit polls in South Carolina showed that beating Obama was the top concern of Republican voters, and those voters broke overwhelmingly for Gingrich. So why are these voters suddenly seeing Gingrich as the stronger nominee, in spite of the establishment’s concerns?
Two things come to mind:
- The backdrop for the GOP primary battle - Obama’s standing - has shifted in recent months, suggesting the general election will be a tougher fight than it once seemed. Although he’s still vulnerable, Obama’s poll numbers have been ticking up, and although the economy is still not good, it’s been moving in the right direction - the stock market has been strong, unemployment figures have gone down. As a result, instead of looking for a non-controversial, nice-guy candidate who can essentially step in and take over when Obama self-destructs, Republican voters seem to sense they’ll need a candidate who can go out there and actually take down the president, using whatever nasty tactics may be required. And they see more of a fighter in Gingrich than in Romney.
- All along, it’s been clear that the general election will be about the economy. And there’s been an assumption - that has not been challenged until now - that in that context, a candidate with business experience, who can present himself as an expert on the economy (ie, Romney), would be the best choice to go up against Obama. But when voters are feeling economic distress, are they going to gravitate toward a candidate who understands the economy - or toward a candidate who understands them, and the problems they’re going through? History points toward the latter. Bill Clinton didn’t win in 1992 because voters thought he was some kind of economic genius. He won because he “felt their pain.” And that is something that Mitt Romney is almost uniquely badly positioned to do. The recent focus on Romney’s wealth, his taxes, his career at Bain, have all contributed to a narrative of a candidate who is out of touch with the concerns of average folks. According to exit polls from Saturday, Romney actually won voters who earn more than $200K a year. But Gingrich won voters who earn less than $50K a year, voters who described their financial position as precarious, voters who had experienced unemployment in their family, by a landslide.
As RedState’s Erik Erikson wrote Saturday night: “Mitt Romney’s exit polling reflects he can get the votes of Washington, D.C. Republicans and those who think we should leave the fate of the country in their hands. But he cannot get the votes of those who think we need to reform and reduce the power of Washington, which I venture to say is a sizable portion of the base.”
In just nine days, we’ll find out if South Carolina was an aberration - or if it is a harbinger of things to come. But for now, it’s clear that many in the Republican base no longer see Romney as the most electable candidate. Romney has nine days to change that - or all bets are off.
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