Start thinking Gingrich?

| January 23 2012
Christopher Cook

Yesterday, I called your attention to analysis suggesting that in spite of Gingrich’s rather resounding victory in South Carolina, the race is still Romney’s to lose. I offered a potential counter-analysis that this race has, since the beginning, been all about Romney vs. a series of sequentially vetted alternative choices.

The bottom line is this: Romney has always been a plausible candidate for president, but he has never connected with conservative voters to a degree sufficient to close the deal. One by one, the GOP primary electorate has looked to alternate choices. They all rose and fell, and now Gingrich is the last not-Romney standing, a fact due in large measure to timing and strong debate performances.

All this time, though, the punditocracy has assumed that Romney’s steadiness and his superior organization would still carry him through. As recently as yesterday, people were talking about how Florida, a less conservative state than South Carolina, would likely still go for Romney.

But that is before the first post South Carolina polls started coming out.

Poll Date Sample MoE Romney Gingrich Santorum Paul Spread
Insider Advantage 1/22 – 1/22 557 LV 4 26 34 11 13 Gingrich +8
CNN/Time 1/13 – 1/17 391 LV 5 43 18 19 9 Romney +24
PPP (D) 1/14 – 1/16 572 LV 4.1 41 26 11 10 Romney +15
Sunshine State News 1/11 – 1/14 1266 LV 2.8 46 20 12 9 Romney +26
Rasmussen Reports 1/11 – 1/11 750 LV 4 41 19 15 9 Romney +22
SurveyUSA 1/8 – 1/8 500 LV 4.5 36 25 17 7 Romney +11
Quinnipiac 1/4 – 1/8 560 LV 4.1 36 24 16 10 Romney +12

It’s just one poll, and it could be an outlier. But it’s also the first poll after the SC vote, and that is a striking fact. Gingrich has momentum coming off of his resounding win. Santorum is still in, but he’s not doing well in the polls. There appears to be at least some consolidation occurring among the voters who haven’t yet been sold on Romney. Romney may have superior organization, but if the voters—a much more savvy group in this era of new media and technology—want Gingrich, they will vote Gingrich.

But there’s more. What if Romney doesn’t have a superior organization? Here’s Byron York:

How did it happen?  For one thing, all the talk about Romney having a hugely superior ground organization turned out not to be true.  “They did not do the retail politics that a Santorum and a Gingrich have done over time,” said Kevin Thomas, chairman of the Fairfield County Republican Party.  (Thomas was neutral in the race.)  “I think Newt’s people, they had more on-the-ground staff, and they worked.”  There were a lot of them, too; after Gingrich’s strong showing in the debates, said Susan Meyers, Gingrich’s media coordinator for the Southeast, “We have so many volunteers, our phones are melting right now.”

Gingrich’s campaign was also faster and more nimble than the Romney battleship. “There is a very strong contrast between the two campaign organizations,” said Gingrich adviser (and former George W. Bush administration official) Kevin Kellems.  “In military terms, it’s speed versus mass.  Newt Gingrich’s operation, and Newt Gingrich as a man, has a great deal of speed — intellectual speed, decisiveness.  The Romney campaign is much more about money and size, having hired half of Washington D.C.  And sometimes, speed beats mass.”

That flies in the face of the generally held notion that none of the other campaigns can go toe-to-toe with Romney’s in terms of organization, money, and ground-game. If Romney does not hold that advantage, then his campaign may be in serious trouble. Conservative activists and tea partiers are still there, and they’re ready to work. If their energy consolidates behind a candidate, that candidate’s ground game is going to get a major boost.

As edifying as I found York’s comments about the campaigns’ relative organization and strength, there was something else. Something that everyone is trying to put their finger on . . .

It was perfect in every sense but engaging with the voters.  Romney’s stump speech was a clipped — some would say dumbed down — list of generalities, concluding with this: “I love this land, I love its Constitution, I revere its founders, I will restore those principles, I will get America back to work, and I’ll make sure that we remain the shining city on the hill.”  Romney offered his supporters very little to chew on.  In this primary race, voters are hungry for substance, and Romney didn’t give them much.

Gingrich’s last event before the voting, a couple of hours later, was a rally on the hangar deck of the USS Yorktown, a World War II aircraft carrier that is now a floating museum across the bay from Charleston.  It was a most un-perfect affair.  To begin with, it just so happened that dozens of Cub Scouts were having an overnight on the Yorktown at the same time as Gingrich and the press showed up for the rally.  Their presence contributed to an air of happy chaos on board, and Gingrich was delighted to invite a few scouts on stage with him at the beginning of his speech.  When Gingrich got to the substance of his remarks, he was wandering, expansive, and detailed, where Romney had been brief and canned.  But Gingrich kept the crowd with him the whole way, and in the end had engaged his audience more than Romney could have hoped for.  Gingrich respected them enough to discuss issues with them seriously.

Romney is a near-perfect Central Casting candidate for president. He looks and sounds the part. He is a decent man, a family man. He is accomplished, as are the other members of his lovely family. And there is no doubt in my mind that he would make a fine president. But there is something about his manner, his way of speaking, that doesn’t quite connect. He says the right things, but they don’t quite stir the soul.

It’s a cruel thing, really, to make someone responsible for stirring the souls of his countrymen. There are no doubt many people who would make fantastic presidents, but who don’t have the ability to stir people—to connect with people—in great abundance. Romney would be a more-than-able president of the United States. But, though it’s hard to put one’s finger on, he does lack . . . well, the best phrase might be an ability to connect, deeply, with voters.

“[Voters] can’t quite get that comfort level with him,” Campbell said.  “They don’t really know quite where he really is coming from.  It’s an intangible.”

McMaster cited Gingrich’s performance in the two South Carolina debates as a prime factor in his decision, but he also expressed concern over Romney’s problem engaging voters. “I don’t know why,” McMaster said Saturday night.  “I can’t explain it, but there’s a little bit of a connection problem.”

Intangible. Connection problem.

And the one thing that Romney seems to lack, Gingrich has in abundance. Whatever deficiencies can be found with Gingrich, the ability to engage and inspire is not among them.

I have met Gingrich. He spoke directly with my wife and I for a time—longer than he needed to, given the chaotic circumstances. He showed interest in what we had to say, in a genuine way. Now granted, we have worked on the research team for several of his films, so we had an “in,” if you will. But even taking that into account, we were able to take the measure of the man. The real way he has of speaking when he is debating or giving a speech isn’t limited to those venues—to us, he came off as just as genuine in person.

Those are just my opinions, though. As are these:

Either Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich would make a fine president. Either of them would be a dramatic improvement over President Obama. But . . .

–if Gingrich gets the consolidated support of those who prefer an alternative to Mitt Romney,

–if Gingrich’s campaign is more nimble and able than we have been led to believe,

–if the next few polls in Florida show Gingrich in the lead,

. . . then this race may end up rather different from what conventional wisdom has long believed.

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