Hold On Tight: GOP Race Is ‘Space Mountain’ Politics

BY Judy Woodruff  February 15, 2012 at 5:25 PM EST

Newt Gingrich proves again he has a way with words when he compares the Republican presidential nominating contest to Space Mountain, the popular Disney roller coaster rides that rise into the air, then send visitors hurtling through twists and drops in the dark. Exactly two months ago, Rick Santorum was sitting far back in the polls, while Gingrich battled Mitt Romney for the lead. As of today, that has practically reversed: Santorum even leads Romney in a few polls and Gingrich has settled back into third or even fourth place.

Looking at national and state polls can cause whiplash, following the lines for Santorum and Gingrich, trending week after week, up and down, or vice versa, just as they did earlier for Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Perry earlier in the season. If nothing else, it’s a humbling reminder that what we think we know about where a race is headed is often dead wrong.

The respected Democratic pollster Peter Hart, with no prompting about Gingrich’s reference to Space Mountain, compares the current GOP numbers to skywriting. “They look sharp and clear against the blue sky, but if you look up in two minutes, they disappear into fuzzy vapor,” he tells me. Hart, who has been polling American political races for more than four decades, says the public “has no particular mooring” in this primary election. “They know they’re not happy with the candidacy of Mitt Romney, but they don’t know whom they should be for,” Hart says.

Continuing with his colorful analogy, Hart quotes the late Mae West, who once said “given a choice between two evils, I’ll take the one I haven’t tried before.” Republicans put it more charitably, but acknowledge Romney hasn’t made the sale yet with a large chunk of Republican voters. Some argue it’s just a matter of time before the most conservative of the electorate fall in line behind the former Massachusetts governor, given that the central goal shared by all Republicans is to deny President Obama a second term.

The Santorum and Gingrich camps disagree, of course. Ed Rollins, Bachmann’s former campaign manager, says of Romney, at this moment of vulnerability, “He can’t let this thing unravel at this point in time…I think the key thing is he’s got to use whatever it takes to win.”

Expect negative advertising by Romney and his super PACs to ramp up in the coming primaries in Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee and other states. If he is able to get some wins back up on the board in the next few weeks, the roller coaster ride will continue.

Perhaps a reason to recall a sentence from a Disney description of one Space Mountain ride: “Once at the top, feel the wind race across your face as you are propelled through the remote blackness of the dark universe … during a rip-roaring rocket ride through the farthest reaches of time and space. And because the majority of the attraction takes place in the dark, you just never know which way you are going to turn or drop!”

Let’s all hang on tight.