46 States to Go!
Date posted: Wednesday, February 1, 2012
How Gingrich supporters get pumped up.
That was the rallying cry at the Gingrich rally last night following Mitt Romney’s solid victory in the Florida primary. Gingrich’s campaign, knowing from the polls that defeat was almost guaranteed, printed up banners and signs for his supporters to drive home the “46 States to Go!” message. Gingrich used his speech to remind people that he’s been counted out at least twice before in this campaign: last summer, when most of his campaign staff quit, and after Iowa, when he fell from frontrunner to fourth place in less than a month. Both times, he surged back to the front of the pack. Even before the voting started in Florida, Gingrich was pre-empting the “Romney has sealed the nomination” narrative by pledging to stay in the race through the convention.
While Romney’s Florida victory reestablishes him as the clear frontrunner, a narrative emerged from Florida that could help Gingrich make good on his pledge. Until now, the Republican primary has been framed as “Romney vs. not-Romney” race. While Romney sat in first or second place in the polls at around 25 percent of the vote, other candidates rose and fell around him. Seeing events unfold in Florida, it looks more accurate to say the race has always been “Republican establishment vs. Tea Party (or grassroots, or whatever phrase you prefer),” with Romney happening to be the only establishment candidate in the race (though not for lack of trying). As establishment figures like John McCain and Bob Dole called on Republicans to close ranks around Romney, Tea Party favorites Herman Cain and Sarah Palin rallied behind Gingrich—Cain with an explicit endorsement (leaving “we the people” feeling jilted and betrayed), and Palin with (what else?) a Facebook post chastising the Republican establishment for seeking to destroy Gingrich and take the election out of the people’s hands.
Gingrich himself failed to take full advantage of the anti-establishment sentiment of the Tea Party. As Bob Moser points out in The American Prospect, Gingrich will not be able to solidify Tea Party support unless he’s able to change his message from “They want to silence me!” to “They want to silence us!” If he does so, he should be able to summon the same populist anger that fueled victories by insurgent candidates like Christine O’Donnell, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul over party-favored candidates in the 2010 Republican primaries. And then he can at least make Romney work for it.
With the picture emerging that Romney is going to win but Gingrich is not going to go away, conservatives are talking themselves into the idea that a long primary is good, that it’s turning Romney into a stronger candidate. They point to his performance in last Thursday’s debate, generally regarded as his best of the twenty-one he’s participated in so far. Optimistic Republicans also point to the 2008 Democratic Primary, where the consensus is that then-Senator Obama’s long primary fight with Hillary Clinton made him a stronger candidate in the general election.
Republicans may be drawing the wrong lesson from the 2008 Democratic Primary. The lesson might not be “long primaries make candidates stronger,” but, instead, “long primaries make strong candidates stronger.” For example, in the 2008 campaign, Texas was a key state in the Democratic Primary: a large state voting after Clinton and Obama had both secured key victories but were still running neck and neck. While Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul remained in the race on the Republican side, John McCain had effectively clinched the nomination, and the public’s focus was squarely on the Democrats. Shortly after the primary, a poll showed Obama running only a point behind McCain in Texas—a state no Democrat has won since 1976 (and no northern Democrat since 1960). While Obama ended up losing Texas by a margin one would expect a Democrat to lose it by, the poll indicates that all the exposure from the primary benefited Obama with voters across the spectrum. Polls indicate that the intensity of the Republican Primary is having the opposite effect on Romney. A general election poll released last week in Florida showed Obama with a significant lead over Romney. Polls also show Romney’s favorability rating plummeting as the primary drags on.
It’s also questionable whether battling Gingrich helps Romney against President Obama because against Gingrich, Romney doesn’t have to exercise the muscles he’ll need against Obama. While the debate is rightfully seen as a pivotal moment in the Florida race, Gingrich’s decline in Florida tracks closely to his decline in Iowa, a state where his debate performances were perceived as strong. The common factor in the two states was the heavy anti-Gingrich advertising from Romney and pro-Romney PACs. Being a large state makes Florida an expensive state to campaign in, and Romney and his allies outspent Gingrich and his allies by a margin of about five to one, spending mostly on anti-Gingrich ads. Going into Florida, the focus was on the flaws of both candidates, particularly Romney’s finances and Gingrich’s lobbying history. Romney simply had more resources to put Gingrich’s flaws before the voters. He will not enjoy the same financial advantage against President Obama.
So, the recap: we have four states in the books with three different winners, twenty-one debates, three Gingrich deaths, and two Gingrich resurrections. And 46 states to go![pinit]