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After Surging in Polls, How Could Newt Gingrich Clinch Nomination?

December 5, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
A month away from the Iowa caucuses, two new polls show that the race for the Republican presidential nomination has a new frontrunner: Newt Gingrich. Judy Woodruff takes a look at the latest poll results with The Washington Post's Dan Balz and J. Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Company, which conducted one of the Iowa polls.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: With the Iowa Republican presidential caucuses less than a month away, two polls show there’s a new favorite for the first-in-the-nation nominating contest.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has now surged to the lead among likely Republican caucus-goers in Iowa, the fifth candidate to take the top spot there in the course of five months. Two polls released over the weekend confirmed his new front-runner status. On Saturday, the Des Moines Register poll found Gingrich with 25 percent. Texas Congressman Ron Paul was second at 18 percent, followed by former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney at 16 percent.

The NBC News/Marist survey released on Sunday also had Gingrich in the lead, but with Romney in second and Paul just a point behind. Seizing on the momentum, the Gingrich campaign today released its first television ad in Iowa.

NEWT GINGRICH: Some people say the America we know and love is a thing of the past. I don’t believe that, because, working together, I know we can rebuild America.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The candidate himself sounded upbeat as reporters shouted questions to him during a trip today to New York City.

QUESTION: What do you think of the new polls?

NEWT GINGRICH: Good.

QUESTION: Can you beat Obama?

NEWT GINGRICH: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gingrich was in New York to meet with real estate mogul Donald Trump, who plans to host a Republican debate in Iowa later this month.

Some of the new support for Gingrich in Iowa came from Herman Cain, who quit the race on Saturday, amid allegations of sexual harassment and an extramarital affair.

HERMAN CAIN: I am suspending my presidential campaign because of the continued distraction, the continued hurt caused on me and my family.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Gingrich rise has also come at the expense of Romney, whose lead in the first primary state, New Hampshire, has been cut in half. Until now, Romney had mainly avoided criticizing his Republican rivals, but he went after Gingrich last week on FOX News.

MITT ROMNEY: He spent his last 30 or 40 years in Washington. I spent my career in the private sector. I think that’s what the country needs right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For all of the candidates, the calendar is increasingly critical. Iowa votes on January 3, followed one week later by the New Hampshire primary.

For more on these early state poll results, we are joined by J. Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Company, an Iowa-based firm that conducted the latest Des Moines Register poll, and Dan Balz, national political correspondent for The Washington Post, who is also in Iowa this evening.

And it’s great to have you both with us.

DAN BALZ, Chief Political Reporter, The Washington Post: Thank you, Judy.

J. ANN SELZER, Selzer & Company, Inc.: Great to be here, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ann Selzer, let me start with you.

First of all, whom did you poll and how much of an improvement does this represent for Newt Gingrich?

J. ANN SELZER: Well, we polled likely Republican caucus goers, that is, starting with people who are registered Republican or independent, and then if you say you will definitely or probably go to the caucus, you qualify for our poll.

What it did for Newt Gingrich was basically see — we saw triple the support that he had in just October, in the last Des Moines Register Iowa poll.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you asked voters a number of questions about how they see these candidates. What did you find about Gingrich?

J. ANN SELZER: You know, he soars above the others on three things. One is that he’s perceived as being the most experienced. He’s perceived as having the most knowledge of the world, and he’s perceived as being the best debater.

That’s by at least half of these caucus-goers. He’s also seen as being able to bring Republicans and Democrats together to create real change and to bring the economy under control. Those are all things that are nice to have in your arrow quiver.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dan Balz, you have been watching Newt Gingrich, not just this year, but for many years before now. How do you explain what’s happened with his campaign?

DAN BALZ: Judy, I think it’s two things.

One certainly is the debates that the Republicans have gone through. If you talk to people here in Iowa, and as well as nationally, people who have watched these debates really think he has done very, very well. He’s clearly helped himself through those debates.

And it’s been the one way for a low-funded campaign, which his has been up to now, to get a message out and to show people what he’s all about. But the second factor obviously is the decline and sort of the ups and downs that other candidates have gone through.

He has benefited most recently from the decline of Herman Cain, but earlier Rick Perry. I mean, other people have gone up and down. He’s been kind of the last person standing as the non-Romney candidate in the race.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Dan Balz, if he is to avoid the fate of those others, what is it, four front-runners in Iowa before him, what does he need to do? What does he need to focus on?

DAN BALZ: Well, the first thing he has to do, obviously, is not make mistakes. In one way or another, all of the other candidates were done in by their mistakes.

And he has a history. We have watched him, all, for many, many years. He has a history of doing things that do himself damage. I think he’s well aware of that. He’s tried to run a disciplined campaign in this case. But that is always a problem for Newt Gingrich in any campaign he’s running.

The second thing he has to do, particularly in a state like this, is capitalize on his popularity and turn that into kind of the organizational muscle that’s important to be able to bring voters out for these caucuses.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Ann Selzer, in looking at your polls, do you see room for him to do that, based on what voters said about the other candidates?

J. ANN SELZER: Well, I think he faces definite challenges from both Ron Paul and from Mitt Romney.

On the Ron Paul side, he’s known to have the strongest statewide organization in terms of supporters lined up committed to him to come out to caucus for him. And you just can’t underestimate the groundwork of an organization of being able to turn out a high percentage of their supporters.

Romney, even though he fell in our poll, is still perceived as the most electable. He’s still perceived as the most presidential. And he’s taken the mantle from Herman Cain as being the most likable. So, he still has some things going for him in his favor. If Newt Gingrich wants to be president, he needs to be perceived as presidential.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about — anything significant in the findings about the other candidates we haven’t mentioned yet, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Jon Huntsman?

J. ANN SELZER: Those three candidates show basically no movement in our poll. They poll in the low single digits, maybe high single digits. They never — they have not broken through since Michele Bachmann’s big start out of the starting gate in June.

Santorum has spent a lot of time in this state, visited 99 counties. It doesn’t appear that the people who come to see him like him all that much. Huntsman has decided to opt out of Iowa. So we know very little about him.

And Herman Cain, we finished in the field just before he announced he was getting out, but we saw his numbers make a precipitous decline during the days he was in the field. So, it seems as though the people who thought he would be a good president, maybe that was a good class president, rather than a national president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dan Balz, what else is known? I left out Rick Perry. But what else is known about the effort that these other candidates are making and to what extent there’s fertile — fertile ground there, either for Gingrich to continue to rise or for somebody else to come up and overtake him?

DAN BALZ: Well, Judy, given everything that we have seen so far, I think anybody would be foolish to say they have a clear idea of exactly how this is going to play out.

I mean, we have been so consistently surprised that to say somebody is truly out of the race is probably always going to be premature, until we begin to hear from voters. I talked to Governor Barbour, Haley Barbour from Mississippi, last week, and asked him, do you think this is now a two-person race for the Republican nomination between Gingrich and Romney?

And he said, no, I wouldn’t say that. And he said, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Rick Perry comes back. Now, Governor Perry has spent a considerable amount of money advertising in this state, more than anybody else. It has not helped him. He is still well down in these recent polls.

And so I think, for Governor Perry, he’s got to get out of this state and do what his campaign people think he’s good at, which is retail campaigning. But, you know, four weeks is a long time in Iowa. Iowa voters, I suspect, are not at all firmly decided.

The history of these caucuses is, if somebody is really hot late, they can get real momentum in the last 10 days and show movement. So, we may have a surprise or two ahead. But I think that the fact that Gingrich has risen at this late stage is very beneficial to him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, along those lines, Ann Selzer, I was reading that you found, what, 60 percent of the people you interviewed said they could still change their minds.

J. ANN SELZER: But, you know, Judy, we followed up that question in this poll, because people keep saying it must be chaos in Iowa, these people aren’t deciding — said, well, really, is there a reason why?

And they could answer yes to all three reasons we offered. One was that, gee, I’m fearful there will be a revelation about a candidate I support, and so I don’t want to lock in. And that gets about 25 percent. Another was, you know, I’m concerned. I know something already about this candidate and I’m fearful that will become a problem. And that’s kind of in the high teens.

The third option we offered was, you always sort of wait until the last moment to lock in; 92 percent said that’s the reason why they’re saying they could still be persuaded. And, gosh, during our final polls right before caucus day, we still see significant changes in who becomes the leader and a presumed leader who falls to fourth place. So, things do happen very late in Iowa.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we will be watching right up until January 3, when they vote.

Ann Selzer, Dan Balz, we thank you both.

J. ANN SELZER: Thank you.

DAN BALZ: Thanks, Judy.