A month ago, before Herman Cain’s polling started on its downward trajectory, I noticed that Newt Gingrich had quietly begun to gain strength in Iowa and elsewhere. Gingrich had consistently performed well in the debates by attacking the media and Barack Obama rather than the other candidates on the stage. Unlike the other boomer candidates, Gingrich had an unassailable grasp on policy details, had never been caught off guard by a question, and had even transformed himself into something of a statesman on stage, as opposed to the rancorous demeanor that the former House Speaker often displayed in public earlier in his political career.
Based on these developments, I predicted that a Cain collapse would result in a resurgence for Newt Gingrich, as Republican voters continue to search for a viable alternative to a Mitt Romney nomination. The failure of Cain, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry to keep from wilting under the pressure of a national campaign would have Republican voters looking for a Romney opponent with tested ability to campaign and to defend his or her positions, and who could present a formidable challenger on stage and off to President Obama. What I didn’t predict was just how many voters would rally to Gingrich as the Romney alternative, and how many of those would be Tea Party adherents.
Gingrich hardly fits the mold of a Tea Party candidate. Unlike Tea Party favorite Sarah Palin, who chose not to run this cycle, Gingrich has spent almost his entire adult life immersed in the Beltway. He came to Washington at the age of 35, and in 15 years became the leader of the Republican Party on Capitol Hill and engineered its first Congressional majority in 40 years. Four years later, the party ousted him and Gingrich left Congress. But he never really left the Beltway.
Gingrich formed a consultancy and landed big contracts with firms doing business in Washington, including Freddie Mac whose bailout continues to anger and animate Tea Party grassroots activists. And of course, the thrice-married Gingrich carries some personal baggage that hasn’t endeared him to the social conservatives among the base.
His policy stances haven’t exactly been consistent with Tea Party conservatism, either. Gingrich’s most famous heresy involved sitting on a love seat with Nancy Pelosi and calling for a national dialogue to address anthropogenic global warming, a move he has now repeatedly called the worst mistake he made during his so-called wilderness years. Gingrich has at times called for a health-insurance mandate similar to the one at the heart of ObamaCare. His immigration policy shows more nuance than most conservative grassroots would like, although his critics remain off-base by calling it an open-borders policy, as I noted in last week’s column. And even as Gingrich entered the race this year, he angered fans of Paul Ryan among the GOP base by calling his broad budgetary and entitlement reform “right-wing social engineering,” a charge that Gingrich has tried to soften but still partly defends.
Given all of this, one might expect a Gingrich polling bubble to come more from moderates and independents rather than voters who identify with the grassroots, eating into Romney’s base and having a limited ceiling of voter support in the primary. Instead, Gingrich has vaulted over Romney, both in national polling and in state-by-state surveys as well. CNN/Time polling has Gingrich leading not just in Iowa but also in South Carolina and Florida – and in the Sunshine State, by almost two to one over Romney, at 48 percent to 25 percent. Even in Romney’s stronghold of New Hampshire, Gingrich has narrowed what had been a big Romney lead over the field, picking up 19 points and now only trailing by nine, 35 percent to 26 percent, with five weeks to go before the Granite State primary. The basis of this support has come from a massive shift of Tea Party and social conservative support to Gingrich.
What gives? To some extent, this appears to be a case of pragmatism. These voters want someone other than Romney, and Gingrich looks like the last person standing. But that overlooks the nuanced history that Gingrich has had with conservative activists. Unlike Romney, who only reached out to the activist base when he became the pragmatic alternative to John McCain in 2008, Gingrich has spent years consistently cultivating relationships with conservative activists. He built an organization, American Solutions, that gave activists a forum in which they could crowd-source efforts to effect conservative change in local communities as well as regionally and nationally.
American Solutions organized the Drill Here, Drill Now push in 2008 during the oil-price shock that pressured the Democratic Congress into relaxing bans on offshore drilling, although the economic collapse later in the year took the issue off the table. Gingrich has been a fixture for years at CPAC, the annual gathering of conservative activists, engaging not just in speeches from the dais but also on the floor of the exhibit room in book signings, grip-and-grins, and blogger interviews.
That record may play into the question of whether Gingrich can hang on to Tea Party support, but perhaps not as strongly as Gingrich might hope. Bear in mind that the Tea Party and CPAC community overlap somewhat but are not the same; the latter can be considered the “establishment” activist set associated with think tanks and well-established organizations, while the former has a more anti-establishment, populist tenor to it.
The biggest advantages the former Speaker has in this regard are the calendar and his extensive experience as an activist. He’s not likely to make the kind of gaffes that plagued Bachmann, Cain, and Perry and which triggered their polling collapses, nor is there much time for another candidate with a more conservative policy record to challenge Gingrich for his newfound base. Gingrich knows how to talk to conservative activists, and he has had a long time to explain his heterodoxies in ways that will allow most of them to give him the benefit of the doubt.
The candidate’s one big disadvantage? Money. Gingrich is still paying off his campaign debt from his summer collapse. Donors have begun flooding the campaign, but retiring the red ink hasn’t allowed him to build the kind of organization usually needed for a long-haul campaign. Perry has dumped more than a million dollars into Iowa advertising in a saturation campaign aimed at peeling social conservatives away from Gingrich and restoring his own momentum in the caucuses, and Romney has plenty of campaign cash to use in New Hampshire and Florida. Even Ron Paul could damage Gingrich by spending his prodigious campaign cash on advertising designed to point out all of Gingrich’s conservative heresies, and now that Gingrich has become the frontrunner, one would expect that from all of the other candidates as well.
Will Gingrich succumb to a massive pile-on? Based on his previous debate performances, it seems unlikely – and it might give Gingrich an opportunity to make his case stronger. We’ll see the first test in the Saturday debate in Des Moines, but don’t bet on Gingrich stumbling.