Analysts are still scouring the results from Saturday’s South Carolina primary for clues as to why Newt Gingrich — the 68-year-old, thrice-married former House speaker who left professional politics in 1999 — is suddenly the front-runner for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. Gingrich, whose campaign has already been declared dead at least twice, is surging in national polls and leading Mitt Romney in the next primary state, Florida, by nine points.
The most surprising finding from the polls so far is that voters still prefer Romney on economic issues over Gingrich. In Florida, 45 percent of voters said they trusted Romney to manage the economy. Only 30 percent said the same of Gingrich. That fact is puzzling, given that voters across the political spectrum have consistently listed the economy as their highest priority. If this election is about the economy, then, how could Gingrich possibly be winning?
For one thing, Gingrich seems to be pushing the right emotional buttons. Romney has always had difficulty connecting to voters on a visceral level. Gingrich gives voice to their anger. He rages against the media, against the establishment, against cultural liberals. He notoriously referred to President Obama as a “food stamp” president, and eviscerated CNN anchor John King in the last debate before the South Carolina primary, lashing out at the GOP’s favorite villain, the media. Anger is apparently a commodity in high demand among Republican voters — more so, perhaps, than expertise on the economy.
The race is now likely to shift dramatically from an ideological battle between the various sects of the Republican Party to a melee of a more personal nature. Already, Romney has tried to tarnish Gingrich’s image among conservatives by questioning his moral character. He has referred obliquely to Gingrich’s rocky marital history — including two divorces caused at least in part by his infidelity — and warned that Gingrich’s time working for the mortgage giant Freddie Mac could potentially have involved “wrongful activity of some kind.” Ethics watchdogs have already accused Gingrich of unlawfully acting as an unregistered lobbyist for the mortgage giant just before the financial collapse.
Gingrich, in turn, is likely to continue hammering away at Romney’s past as a buyout specialist at his private equity firm, Bain Capital. Romney is also set to release his 2010 tax returns this week, which are likely to confirm that he benefited from a tax loophole available to elite Wall Street types that allows private equity managers to pay as little as 15 percent of their income in taxes, as opposed to the standard 35 percent.
Still, unless Gingrich is able to build on his momentum going into the Florida primary in the next week, the long game will be Romney’s to lose. Romney has a much more aggressive ground game and a more extensive organization laid out across the country, which will come in handy once the multi-state primaries arrive, beginning with Super Tuesday in March. Large states like Florida are also likely to drain cash-poor campaigns of their limited resources, since it’s expensive to advertise there.
Meanwhile, the GOP establishment — bundlers, fund-raisers and lawmakers, among others — is almost certain to continue closing ranks around Romney. As former Senator Jim Talent of Missouri, a Romney adviser, told the Washington Post over the weekend: “The people who know what it takes to run for an office like this, I think, have become increasingly convinced that he has the ability to do it — that he can win and that he can govern afterwards. It’s also increasingly obvious that the others that are left are not in a position to do that.”