Tuesday, December 20, 2011

It's been a bad month for Newt

Ron Paul has surged ahead in Iowa, Mitt Romney remains well ahead in New Hampshire, and Gingrich has been on a steady decline:

After enjoying 14- to 15-percentage-point leads over Mitt Romney in early December, Newt Gingrich is now statistically tied with Romney in national Republican preferences for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination: 26% for Gingrich vs. 24% for Romney. This follows a steady decline in support for Gingrich in the past 10 days.

I wrote about this "Reverse Newtmentum" last Friday, both here and at The Huffington Post. Here's some of what I wrote:

I don't think he's done. While his numbers are falling, some decline was inevitable as people got to know him better (and found things they didn't like), as his rivals turned their fire on him as the frontrunner (negativity came first from Paul, but Romney has picked up the attack in recent days), as his electability began to be called into question, and as the Republican elite/establishment (whatever you want to call it) began to panic over the inevitable disaster of Gingrich as the nominee, with both politicians (e.g., Pete King, Chris Christie) and pundits (e.g., Noonan, Will, Brooks, Gerson, Coulter, etc.) going on the anti-Newt offensive.

So while one way to look at it is that he's declining, another is that he's just levelling off at a more reasonable level of support, some of the early irrational enthusiasm wiped away.

Which is to say, he can still win Iowa, still run a strong second in New Hampshire, and still win South Carolina and Florida. If anything, his problem is not his poll numbers but his on-the-ground, get-out-the-vote campaigns, which were late getting going because he wasn't really a serious candidate until just recently. So it's possible he'll end up underperforming relative to expectations simply because of a lack of organization (and, relatively speaking, a lack of money). But maybe not. He's still the most viable non-Romney option the Republicans have, and we all know Republicans really don't want Romney as their nominee (other than some in the elite and those worried primarily about electability, and so certainly not the base, not most primary voters).

I stand by most of that (even if, as I admit in the post, I'm just not sure of anything anymore when it comes to this GOP race). After all, while he's behind in Iowa, he's still a little ahead of Romney nationally. The problem, for him, is that a third-place finish in Iowa, behind Paul and Romney, would be a disaster, perhaps the end of his campaign (not least because he just doesn't have the ground campaigns to pull out victories state-by-state unless he generates significant early momentum). And that's how it's looking now.

Although, and this is really the one positive for Newt in all this, Romney's support has remained flat, indicating that the large anti-Romney majority in the GOP remains unconvinced -- and, more, unwilling to support Mitt. But if Romney hasn't been able to take advantage of Newt's decline, he nonetheless benefits from the deeply divided anti-Romney vote. Unless Newt can pull that support back from those to whom it has gone in recent days (a bit to each of Bachmann, Perry, and Santorum, it would appear), Romney has the clearest path to the nomination, if only by default. (How this would play out is another matter. Are Republicans really prepared to nominate someone who can't even crack 30 percent support -- and who is deeply loathed by the base?)

Remember when Newt said that "it's very hard not to look at the recent polls and think that the odds are very high I'm going to be the nominee"? That was on December 1. While I'd love to see The Newt as the nominee (because he'd be a disaster in the general election), it's hard not to feel a certain Schadenfreude in observing his dramatic fall. It really couldn't happen to a more deserving guy.

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