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Why Newt?

Over a fantastic meal at Husk in Charleston, old fashioned cocktails at the Gin Joint, cigars on East Bay and a classic low-country breakfast this morning – can you tell this is a great place? – I posed the same question to several local South Carolina friends: why Newt? What can explain the rise of Newt Gingrich here in South Carolina, to the point where he may very well win today?

As I am sure all you smart Ricochet folks know full well, South Carolina historically has been a place where the leading candidate confirms their position and marks the last gasp of any opponents. It has voted for every Republican nominee since 1980, even in 2008, when Mike Huckabee came close to beating McCain. The fact that it’s the home for many a desperate last stand is one of the reasons the state is a petri dish for dirty tricks and last minute surprises – but that historical record makes it all the more stunning to think that Gingrich, who came in fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire, could pull off a win here after the polls close in an hour’s time.

So what’s the explanation? The assessment I heard from friends and compatriots was interesting. A caveat acknowledging bias, before this decidedly unscientific listing of views: everyone I asked had voted for Huckabee or McCain in 2008 (Romney came in fourth here then, so his voters from 08 are fewer in number anyway). With that said, here are the three areas that stood out to me:

The Media Battle. Nearly every person brought up of their own volition the idea that in order to beat President Obama in November, the Republican candidate will have to endure a barrage of attacks from the liberal media, who will be dedicated to his reelection. We’re all familiar with Gingrich’s longstanding jousting matches with moderators and journalists, but this is different than just that – it’s skepticism that Romney can withstand the similar pressure. The last two debates have hurt Romney a great deal on this account, if they are to be believed. One line from a Charleston friend: “Romney had this whole teflon thing going for a while but now I think they would tear him apart.”

Via email, Josh Trevino raised a point about this that I think is very accurate:

Conservatives (accurately) perceive the media mainstream to be a de facto organ of the liberal left, and by extension, the Democratic Party – and they understand that conservative governance is absolutely impossible unless that organ is defeated or co-opted. On the latter count, ask President John McCain how his co-option efforts went. When Newt Gingrich crushes a hapless journalist, he isn’t just tossing up a parlor trick: he’s demonstrating an indispensable prerequisite to conservative governance today.

For a state that has seen more than its fair share of media games – and in fact just elected Governor Haley in spite of widespread (and quite personal) attacks from the local media – this is a point that resonates all the more. 

The Importance of the Debates. Gingrich initially rose, and Perry fell, due to the overabundance of debates this cycle. Everyone – and again, Thursday’s debate was in Charleston – cited this as significant, and Gingrich’s performances in the past two debates have impressed them even as Romney (hounded by Santorum on Romneycare, meandering on his tax returns) turned in arguably two of his worst performances. Consider: both Gingrich and Romney saw the questions coming – Gingrich on his ex-wife, Romney on his tax returns. One was prepared to defend himself, and one seemingly was not. That apparently resonated, and not just with my friends, as Chris Cilizza of the Washington Post points out today:

Exit polls from #scprimary: Two-thirds of voters say recent debates were the most or one of most impt issues in deciding vote. AMAZING.

Indeed. And as much as people cited the positives from Gingrich’s performance, there was much more concern expressed about Romney’s negative performances. The rationale is simple: what if Romney can’t hack it in a debate with Obama? Failing to mount a defense of conservatism on the debate stage and in the public square – a failure that reminds conservatives of much of the worst moments of George W. Bush’s tenure – was one of the most significant reasons Rick Perry is back home in Texas today. Conservatives have no interest in people who become shrinking violets on the stage. Consider this quote from an evangelical voter in The State, the largest newspaper here:

“No one does not have baggage. Newt’s was just exposed more because of his time in politics,” she said. “I think it’s time for a bulldog president. Grab ‘em by the pants leg and don’t let go until you draw blood. That’s Newt.”

But there’s more here than just the power of words. Here’s an email from a non-South Carolinian on this point, which I heard echoed in their views:

The whole reason why former Perry/Cain/Bachmann/Pawlenty/Santorum supporters are giving Newt a hearing is that they reject the notion that a guy with Romney’s record is a conservative, and they recognize that since 1964 the GOP’s losses in national races have all come from the party’s moderate wing… Newt has a record. It is not one of unbroken conservative success, but it is a record of a great electoral triumph and some significant policy accomplishments at a time when Newt was the party’s de facto national leader and the Left’s #1 target. That record of being the Man in the Arena with the scars to show for it gives him a credibility behind his rhetoric that, say, a Herman Cain would not have.

Most members of the pundit class view the arrows in Newt’s back as election problems. They probably are for any potential general. But to the conservative base that makes up much of the electorate in a red state like this, those battle scars are viewed as an asset, not a liability – a sign that there’s principle behind the words, not just poll-testing.

Questioning Mitt’s Message. While Gingrich was speaking to a raucous crowd of 700+ in Orangeburg yesterday, Mitt Romney was giving his standard stump speech at a more subdued rally in North Charleston, which just lacked any real energy (and was prefaced, oddly, by a band playing Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” and Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a Changing” – the last time I heard those at a rally, I’m pretty sure it was Clinton-Gore 1996). He has bused in many younger volunteers from out of state who are more passionate, but the stump speech was the same old, same old. The journalists who have heard it a hundred times find this honed perfection boring; I find it certainly passable, but by no means inspiring.

Is this a problem? Well, it could be. One of my friends specifically directed me to this Laura Ingraham interview with Romney yesterday, where the former governor advanced his general election argument on jobs and why he should beat Obama. The political challenge: what if the economy starts to look up by Election Day, even just thanks to modest improvement in the numbers, and even if it’s in spite of Obama’s policies, not because of them? Here’s what Ingraham asked:

INGRAHAM: Isn’t that a hard argument to make if you’re saying — Okay, he inherited this recession, and he took a bunch of steps to try to turn the economy around, and now we’re seeing some more jobs, but vote against him anyway? Isn’t that a hard argument to make? Is that a stark enough contrast?

ROMNEY: Have you got a better one, Laura? [laughter] It just happens to be the truth…. at some point it’s going to get better, but I don’t think President Obama’s helping it.

That is just not a good enough message, and it’s not a principled one, my friend pointed out – and he’s right. Electability concerns for Gingrich are well in evidence, but if Romney’s only argument is reduced to “pay no attention to improving numbers,” that sounds like a losing approach. There has to be a more principle-focused rationale to take to the voters.

By way of contrast: Gingrich has shared a message based around that rationale in large part because of the specific way he talks about “jobs” – not rattling off statistics as Perry and others did and do, but by expressing what having a job means, often in terms that are very specific to the locality he’s in (unlike Romney, Gingrich’s stump speech is very localvore). This example from the most recent debate features a line Gingrich has been repeating on the stump here across the state: “Elect us and your kids will be able to move out because they’ll have work.” It is aspirational talk, not spreadsheet talk, and in the South, that sells.

Two quick practical notes, in addition to all this:

Romney’s money advantage mitigated? South Carolina has been absolutely blanketed with ads. More than $13 million has been spent on TV there, which is an astonishing amount for the state – every time you turn on the TV, it seems like one’s running from the various Super PACs. The mailboxes are just as clogged. But in contrast to Iowa, the anti-Romney and anti-Gingrich ad content seems to be roughly equivalent (partly because Romney’s ads are only attacking Gingrich now, and Santorum and Gingrich are both attacking Romney). Being at parity on this front hurts Romney a bit I’d think.

Which endorsements matter? The endorsements that came to Romney last time and this time are not doing much to move people. Jim DeMint has not endorsed Romney, and while Governor Nikki Haley has (as did Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell this week), she’s still a controversial figure here who doesn’t have strong poll numbers. Much of the legislature’s conservative leadership, contra Haley, has jumped in to endorse Newt, along with many of Jon Huntsman’s backers. None of my friends mentioned any endorsements as influencing them one way or the other, though one did say he was surprised popular Rep. Tim Scott did not endorse anyone, and a few remarked about their decision being easier without Perry and Huntsman in the race. This GQ article notes the reaction of some conservative South Carolina congressmen to Haley’s endorsement:

Mulvaney says, “So here’s the $64,000 question that I’m sure GQ would love an answer to, and I’m going to try to ask it in a way that won’t get any of us in trouble: Nikki Haley’s endorsement more helpful in state, or out of state?”

“Out of state,” Duncan says quickly. Gowdy is emphatic. “OUT. OF. STATE.”

In sum: South Carolinians are wary of nominating another uninspiring moderate guy who can’t defend himself or conservatism in the public square. They’ve seen these candidates, and their ads, for more than a week now. And with a field down to four, the momentum is swinging Newt’s way because of his ability to defend himself, his record, and conservative ideas in the debates and the public square. This is something the voters I spoke to believe is essential for any nominee – and it is something that, at least in this state, Romney has failed to do.

  1. Crow

    Ben: Old fashioned cocktails and cigars—amen, brother!

    A few comments:

    1)   Media Battle: Pushing back against the media is a challenge every Republican in every race around the country faces—and has—for the better part of a generation. The tempo will be upped in 2012 b/c the media finds Republican attacks on BHO unfair.

    When the reporter’s start pushing back against Newt—and they will, his performance in SC means its coming—we may rediscover some of the wisdom in the aphorism about ink bought by the barrel.

    2)   Importance of debates: Completely agree here, except for the SC voter’s email. In 1964 we lost with a conservative, but since then the record between moderates and conservatives is mixed. Nixon, Ford, GHWB were all moderates who won. Dole and McCain lost. Reagan lost in 76 but won in 80. GWB, in my mind, does not come from the “conservative” wing of the party so, as a tending moderate, he won twice.

    3)   Questioning Mitt’s Message: Woefully insufficient, Mitt. Having serious concerns about his ability to compete under fire.

    4)  Money advantage: The nominee is needs a large war chest against the Obama machine.

  2. katievs

    Good points, all.

    I still can’t warm to the idea of a Gingrich candidacy. 

    My hope is that he knocks off the idea that Romney is inevitable and turns this into a real race of ideas.

  3. Keith Preston

    Please…convince me…why is Newt NOT Goldwater 64…in which case Obama’s second four years become a “Great Society” which finishes off the planet’s last remaining hope…

  4. Joe

    Perhaps they miss Sanford, and want another politician that disrespects his wife, God, and word by cheating on her. I mean, John Edwards did well there in 2004.

  5. Nobody

    One of George W Bush’s signal failures – among many – was his unwillingness and inability to defend himself against the permanent enemy: the media.  

    Conservatives were furious at him for his fecklessness in that regard.  We loathe the media and understand what a malign force it is.  We felt him to be a mumbling political coward. 

    Where Mitt Romney tries to avoid any controversy that might stir up the media before he can lock down the nomination, Newt Gingrich, God bless him, goes right for the throat.  

  6. mesquito

     I’ve made a point of not having a candidate this time because it’s pretty much over by the time the Happy Train rolls into Texas (assuming the Department of Justice permits us to hold elections this decade.)

    So as a disinterested observer of the horse-race I’ve been most surprised at how everyone has been wrong about everything.

  7. The King Prawn

    The most important thing is that the primary isn’t over after only three states have voted/caucused. Even if he doesn’t win in the end at least Romney will have earned the nomination rather having it handed to him.

  8. David Bufkin

    Excellent analysis. Husk and Gin Joint. Wish I were there.

  9. James Of England
    Keith Preston: Please…convince me…why is Newt NOT Goldwater 64…in which case Obama’s second four years become a “Great Society” which finishes off the planet’s last remaining hope… · 

    Goldwater would not have conceded that we need to spend more on subsidizing “clean energy”, would not have said that we should have “a variation on” Obamacare, would not engage in class warfare defenses of ethanol subsides and flex-fuel mandates, would not constantly come up with new tax credits and big government schemes, would not attack Ryan for being too right wing, would not attack capitalism (Newt denies that he does this, and many of his attacks on Bain do not, but many do).

    Even before going back in history to his Freddie Mac lobbying, his Dede Scozzafava support, and similar assaults on conservatism, Newt is not a Goldwater conservative. He frequently has the rhetoric of one, but when he reaches out to history for guides, it is generally to progressives (both Roosevelts, in particular). He lacks Goldwater’s appeal as a solid, principled, conservative.

    See, for instance, his tax plan, which seems impossibly unlikely to pass, but which shames republican claims to care about the deficit.

  10. DrewInWisconsin

    I mentioned this in another thread; I think I’ll mention it here:

    In Thursday night’s debate, Mitt Romney actually used the term “Romneycare” to describe his Massachusetts healthcare plan. He wasn’t using it ironically. Many of us in the live chat noticed it and remarked on it. (I’m kind of surprised I haven’t seen more mention of it.)

    I haven’t been a fan of Mitt Romney, so you’re not getting an unbiased view here . . . but that tiny moment was a tell for me. It reinforced the notion of Mitt Romney as a chameleon who quickly and effortlessly becomes his environment. No actual identity — just a reflection of those around in. I.e., because everyone else calls it Romneycare, so does he. He doesn’t even seem to understand that the term is not intended to be complimentary.

    The opponents of Newt have called him “undisciplined” and “erratic.” My friends, how is the above not an indication of Mitt’s lack of discipline? And not just this, but his failure to prepare for the questions he must know are coming. Erratic? Listen to his responses on his taxes. I know who’s really erratic.

  11. Butters

    If Romney can’t close the deal by Super Tuesday, party bigwigs will pressure someone like Daniels to jump in.

    Daniels has said he doesn’t think a brokered convention would be a bad thing.

    There is just no way the party establishment allows Gingrich to be the nominee without a fight.

    This better light a fire under Romney, if he has any semblance of fight in him.

  12. Noesis Noeseos

    Not everything Newt has advocated or accomplished can be labeled “conservative,” but I can’t think of anything Mitt has done that merits that description.

    Granted, Newt has a big ego which he does not always control well, but having watched him in the debates, I am convinced that he is the only one who attempts to subsume the ambitions of that ego to combating what he well articulates is the crisis facing our constitutional republic.  He is also the only candidate who has included the audience in his comments, from “every one in this room has experienced personal pain” to, more importantly, “I ask you not to be for me, but with me.”  He knows that it is we the people who must endeavor to restore the government our Founding Fathers bequeathed, that no president, even with an allied congress, can do it without our dedication.  This he has reinforced with the honesty to tell people that as the federal government shrinks, the states, the localities, and the people themselves must take on more responsibility for the commonweal.  He alone understands subsidiarity.

    And, as Lincoln said of Grant, “He fights.”

  13. Severely Ltd.
    Ben Domenech:

    The Media Battle.

    Conservatives…understand that conservative governance is absolutely impossible unless that organ (MSM) is defeated or co-opted. When Newt Gingrich crushes a hapless journalist, he’s demonstrating an indispensable prerequisite to conservative governance today.

    …what if Romney can’t hack it in a debate with Obama? Failing to mount a defense of conservatism on the debate stage and in the public square was one of the most significant reasons Rick Perry is back home in Texas today.

    In sum: South Carolinians are wary of nominating another uninspiring moderate guy who can’t defend himself or conservatism in the public square.

    …[Defending] conservative ideas in the debates and the public square. This is something the voters I spoke to believe is essential for any nominee -  · ·

    Music to my ears, and the crucial point that Romney boosters have not grappled with.  We–the conservative hoi polloi–intuitively realize that a sizable portion of the country has to be persuaded for conservatism to triumph; South Carolina primary voters are, I think, proof of this. It isn’t enough to win a squeaker.

    Maybe that’s all we can manage this go round, but that sucks eggs.

  14. DrewInWisconsin
    Ningrim:

    There is just no way the party establishment allows Gingrich to be the nominee without a fight.

    Then I guess we fight the party. Isn’t that what we had to do in 2010?

  15. Rob Long
    C

    Husk?  I’m green with jealousy.

    Husk is maybe the best restaurant in America right now.  And the bar next door is a revelation of bourbon.  Start the day with a Big Nasty at Hominy Grill, and you’ve eaten better than any American that day.

  16. Butters
    DrewInWisconsin

    Ningrim:

    There is just no way the party establishment allows Gingrich to be the nominee without a fight.

    Then I guess we fight the party. Isn’t that what we had to do in 2010? · 0 minutes ago

    Sort of, Newt might be preferable to Romney I suppose, but this is still a sorry lot. A new entrant like Daniels would signify a recognition by both sides that the current field is unacceptable, and could present an excellent opportunity for reconcilliation.

    When Daniels was on the Ricochet podcast recently he seemed quite open to the idea of a brokered/deliberative convention, and he also pointed out how few of the delegates would be chosen in the early primaries and how dispersed they would be.

    Remember, the only thing stopping him was his wife. Maybe she could have a change of heart.

    I find it interesting that Daniels hasn’t endorsed yet.

  17. wmartin
    Severely Ltd.

    Music to my ears, and the crucial point that Romney boosters have not grappled with.  We–the conservative hoi polloi–intuitively realize that a sizable portion of the country has to be persuaded for conservatism to triumph; South Carolina primary voters are, I think, proof of this. It isn’t enough to win a squeaker.

     · 22 minutes ago

    You have it exactly backward. I support Romney because I know voters must be persuaded, and they will not be persuaded by an angry, red-faced Newt blowing a gasket when asked questions he doesn’t like. I do understand the appeal of his style, but conservative base voters (and particularly, southern conservative base voters) have got to finally realize that they are a minority, and what sells to them is not what sells to the rest of the country.

    Rich Lowry asked the question yesterday “When has anyone won a general election debate by seeming more angry and ill-tempered than the opponent? Al Gore lost a debate because he sighed too much.” Good question…

  18. AUMom

    Al Gore lost, not because he sighed too much, he bored folks to death too much. Not going to be a problem with Mr. Gingrich, I think. 

    That said, I am praying for a brokered convention.

  19. wmartin
    AUMom: Al Gore lost, not because he sighed too much, he bored folks to death too much. Not going to be a problem with Mr. Gingrich, I think. 

    That said, I am praying for a brokered convention. · 3 minutes ago

    Al Gore lost the first general election debate because he came across as boorish and ill-mannered. Like the partisans here, democratic partisans loved his attitude until they realized how poorly swing voters were taking it.

  20. Peter Robinson
    C

    Gorgeous reporting and analysis.  Thanks, Mr. D.