Gringrich Could Still Win Iowa, or Lose It and Still Win the Nomination
By Al Giordano
Hello Field Hands. It’s twelve days to the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses to choose between Republican candidates for the US presidential nomination. I’ve been busy in Mexico and other lands in this 20ll, The Year of Civil Resistance. You can read more about all that the post below this one (and please do, you gotta know about the world around you to better understand where you are). But I heard a rumor that you have a presidential election gearing up in the United States, and – alas and of course – the political reporters and pundits seem as clueless and hapless as they’ve been every four years. So let's get down to business.
Remember this time eight years ago, when the polls and pundits were declaring Howard Dean a sure thing to win Iowa, only to be disappointed on caucus night by John Kerry? Do you recall four years ago, when, twelve days out, Hillary Clinton was up in the Hawkeye State by between four to 14 points according to five major polling organizations, only to be conquered by Obama at the actual caucuses?
Well, let’s see what the reliably wrong pundit class saying this year about the only contested caucus, the one on the Republican side.
Scott Galupo of US News & World Report assures us: “Romney poised for Iowa-New Hampshire sweep.”
Liz Marlantes writes in the Christian Science Monitor: “Rick Santorum, Iowa’s Dark Horse candidate, gaining ground."
Echoing the most common pack-journalists' spin we’ve heard this week from all corners, John Nichols, in The Nation, pronounces Gingrich’s Iowa hopes dead, that he’s “headed for footnote status.”
And Nate Silver, a few days ago, pegged Ron Paul with a 49 percent chance of winning Iowa. (He now has it down to 40 percent in a tie with Romney, but he sure got a Paul boom-let going and caused the political press corps to chirp along in harmony.)
During the 2008 cycle, The Field’s projections more often than not reached the same conclusions as Silver’s. He might be right. But I’m not convinced that Paul or Romney will win Iowa, or even if they do that either will go on to win the nomination, and here’s why:
Stuff happens in the final twelve days before the Iowa caucuses, and it’s hard to get accurate polling over the holidays. Then around New Year’s the Des Moines Register will weigh in with its own poll, which is typically given more weight by the rest of the media than all other polls. And in those last couple of days prior to the caucuses, party bosses and activists try to assess which candidates have a chance and there is suddenly momentum on behalf of two or three candidates, maximum, as supporters of the also-rans then gravitate toward the media-fed perceptions of who can win. Those are the hours when the supporters of candidates who aren’t doing well in the polls make their big jumps onto other more convincing bandwagons.
First, here are a few things we all need to know about the Iowa caucuses. 119,000 voters participated in them last round. I’d bet my bottom dollar that it will be under 100,000 – maybe significantly less – in 2012 because Republicans aren’t really happy with any of their candidates. Just look at the roller coaster ride of the past year from the Real Clear Politics graph of GOP candidate standings in the Iowa polls:
Now, I'm not sure what a "clusterfuck" looks like, but I'm pretty sure it looks something like that. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney led in Iowa polls until July, then Minnesota US Rep. Michelle Bachman jumped into the lead until September, when Texas Governor Rick Perry became the party faithful’s new darling, only to be replaced atop the polls by crazy Herman Cain in September until his November slide, then former house speaker Newt Gingrich arose with a roar. He became the target of massive negative advertising – especially by Romney’s friends in those shady super-PACs, which bumped him back down to earth, now below Romney and the current poll leader, Texas US Rep. Ron Paul.
In other words, the GOP electorate is unsure and fickle about every one of them.
Think of it this way: Iowa Republicans have already had more wives and mistresses than Gingrich in 2011 alone!
Evangelical pastor Kerry Jech is probably a typical swing voter on this affair:
Jech, the pastor from Marshalltown, said he’s choosing between the four candidates that addressed the forum: Bachmann, Santorum, Gingrich, and Perry, but both he and his wife Jane, who’s running for state senate, may not have a decision before they walk in to caucus on Jan. 3.
He said a splintered evangelical electorate that brings Romney a win or helps him do well here “continues to be a concern” of his and just late last month he met with other conservative evangelical leaders about trying to unite behind one of the candidates so that does not happen. However, now he’s just looking to God to help make his own decision.
Hear that God? Not only do you have to help Tim Tebow win on the football field every Sunday, but now you’ve got to instruct 35,000 Evangelical caucus-goers on who to back on the first Tuesday night of the year.
If you add up the average support for the four candidates most appealing to Evangelicals, it goes like this: Gingrich 17.3, Perry 11.8, Bachman 8.3 and Santorum 7.0. That’s a total of 44.4 percent of a bloc of voters that, should any one of these four individuals show momentum in the final Des Moines Register poll, it is very plausible that enough of them will coalesce around him or her to punch through to a caucus victory.
The Evangelical imperative to “stop Romney,” in 2008, was the entire reason they held their noses and began lining up behind John McCain, even as they considered him a screaming liberal by Republican standards. I know it’s not polite to say it, and they almost never say it out loud in public, but Southern Baptists and other kinds of Evangelicals just do not like Mormons. It's like this dirty little secret that the politically-correct press corps isn't allowed to utter a word about. And for part of 2011 they were even willing to back a black guy named Cain to stop the Romney train.
The formerly 300 pound gorilla in the room (now at a svelte 190 pounds) is former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee – who won Iowa in 2008 with 38 percent support (what is now divided between the four horse-pols of the apocalypse, Gingrich, Perry, Bachman and Santorum) – who insists he will not endorse a candidate, but said something curious this week to conservative political columnist Byron York: “Huckabee suggested that Mitt Romney might benefit from a splintering on the conservative side of the party. But he still believes that, even with less than three weeks before the caucuses, another surprise or two might be in store.”
It’s true that if Huckabee did endorse one of them that person probably would shoot ahead to win Iowa. But I believe Huck when he says he won’t endorse. The guy learned at an early age that he has no poker face anyway so he tends to be a straight shooter. In fact, if it weren’t for his politics, I otherwise find Huckabee to be an appealing human being and electric bass player.
Still, that lack of a poker face tells us what Huck – and many like him – are really thinking. On his December 13 radio show, The Huckabee Report, the 2008 Iowa victor reviewed the December 10 debate between the GOP candidates. Read the transcription carefully:
“There was yet another debate Saturday, and for sheer entertainment value, it’s hard to imagine any of the current crop of movies topping it. It had all the makings of high drama: a new kingpin in Newt Gingrich, whom everyone was trying to take down. The squeaky-clean second in command, Mitt Romney, tempted by the dark side to turn dirty against Newt to save himself. And all the others, jockeying for advantage like the scheming lords in a Shakespearean play. The only thing it was missing was that welcome touch of humor that Herman Cain used to bring. But with the first votes in Iowa looming, the plot is thickening and there’s no place for comic relief anymore.”
Okay, can we all agree based on those words that Huckabee doesn’t like Romney and he’s fond of Gingrich? Read on to see evidence of a rather well-developed man-crush…
“As expected, the slings and arrows were mostly aimed at Newt Gingrich, but he did such a good job of knocking them out of the air, it was almost like watching a ninja movie. When accused of flip-flopping on supporting a health insurance mandate, he deftly explained his shift while accusing the accuser of getting the facts wrong. When the moderators brought up marital fidelity in an obvious attempt to throw him, Newt humbly admitted that he’d fallen short before finding redemption. That’s an answer that evangelical voters can relate to. And when he was attacked on the big manufactured outrage of the day, his comment that the concept of the “Palestinian people” was a fairly recent invention, he let the other candidates finesse their answers. Then he stepped up to the plate and shattered the whole PC web they’d spun around him by not only standing by his words, but citing specific instances of the Palestinian leaders’ ties to terrorism. He said it was high that time that someone told the truth about the Middle East in the same way that Ronald Reagan ignored all the warnings from soft-soap diplomats and called the Soviet Union what it was: an evil empire that needed to tear down the Berlin Wall….
“After the debate, the analysts were sifting through transcripts, looking for turning points. Did Michele Bachmann entice any Cain supporters? Did Romney alienate the unemployed by offering a facetious $10,000 bet to Rick Perry? But most seem to have missed the real news. Maybe because media people are so awash in a sea of politically-correct weasel words themselves, they might not realize just how hungry many Americans are for someone who will tell it to them straight, instead of soft-peddling the facts and trying not to offend anyone. They were so busy being horrified at what Gingrich said about the Middle East that they didn’t hear the cheers that erupted coast-to-coast when he refused to back down from it. If there was any turning point in the debate, I’d bet that was it. But I wouldn’t put $10,000 on it…
“Newt Gingrich took a lot of friendly fire in his first big debate as the GOP frontrunner. But he appears to have sailed through in one piece. The latest polls show him solidifying his lead in South Carolina and Florida. But with that top tier status come attacks from all sides…
“Meanwhile, with the first Iowa votes now less than a month away, his rivals are turning up the heat. Ron Paul and Mitt Romney are running scathing ads against Gingrich. But strategically, that’s actually good for Newt. There was never any question that whoever was in front was going to be blasted. But Newt has been the candidate who, all along, refused to attack his rivals and reminded them to keep the focus on the job Barack Obama has been doing. If he’d gone into primary season as the candidate who obeyed Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment not to attack a fellow Republican, then violated that principle, it would reflect badly on him. By waiting until the other candidates attacked him, he can attack in return, but look like he’s just defending himself. And believe me, in this type of situation, it’s much better to be the one who responds than the one who attacks first. Voters often don’t hear the original attack, but they hear the frontrunner’s response.”
Thus spoke Huckabee. And that’s not bad political analysis albeit from a guy who seems to wish he was in the field even after he decided not to run.
Now, when Bachman, Perry and Cain fell from their fifteen minutes atop the polls, they handled it badly and the honeymoons were definitively off. Cain is out for good, and The Field does not see Bachman or Perry reemerging. I don't see either winning the Iowa caucuses.
Gingrich, however, is handling his late dip in the polls like the political “ninja” that Huckabee drooled over. Newt has done two smart things:
The first Newtonian chess move can be read in this CNN headline: “Gingrich lowers expectations, shoots for top three or four in Iowa.” He followed it with: "I probably will be in the top two in New Hampshire, and then to win South Carolina and Florida."
And that’s Gingrich’s ace up his sleeve: He’s got a firewall around the South’s winner-take-all primaries that General Sherman couldn’t march through, much less Mitt Romney. All Newt has to do is survive Iowa and New Hampshire, and then comes the Georgian’s moment in the sun with a string of victories below the Mason-Dixon line.
The other thing Newt did as his numbers started to slip was, from a tactical standpoint, very Reaganesque: He gave GOP faithful more red meat than the other candidates have been able to feed them to date. Now he’s threatening to invade the judicial branch of government from the executive, saying he’ll force the removal of court judges that issue rulings he and the conservative base do not like.
Even Huckabee is uncomfortable with Gingrich’s latest maneuver:
“Politically, he has a point — it’s a great applause line. I like Newt, and I think he’s a great candidate, but I’m very uncomfortable with some of the things he’s saying,” Huckabee said. “When you start talking about defying a court — you know, I was a governor for 10-and-a-half years — there wasn’t a month of my tenure that I didn’t have some court decision, either state, Supreme, or federal court that came and issued a ruling that I didn’t particularly like.
“That didn’t give me the opportunity to say: ‘I’m just not going to obey it,’ or ‘I’m going to call the judge in or one of the Supreme Court justices, and I’m going to call him up before the legislature and clean his clock.’ You just can’t do that,” Huckabee said. “In 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas, there was a governor who stood at the schoolhouse door at Central High School and said nine black students couldn’t go through that door, because he didn’t like the court order — that’s not the way you govern — you change laws; you amend the constitution, but you just don’t just say: ‘I don’t like it; therefore, I’m not going to do it.’”
But guess what? Huckabee is a better person than most of the rank-and-file conservative Republican caucus-goers, many of whom think that the 1950s Arkansas governor was brave and right for blocking the schoolhouse door from black children! They’re gonna love this eggnog that Gingrich is pouring into their Yule cups!
Also in the news, Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association, a key bloc in the Christian Right, has now endorsed and says he will campaign in Iowa for Gingrich. (Other religious right leaders have joined a late surge for former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, and I'll get to that before this essay is done.)
And as if the specter of Romney wasn’t enough for the old Moral Majority crowd in all its current infestations and splinter groups, now they’re in a pincer-grip with their fear of Romney on one side being squeezed on the other by Ron Paul’s late surge in the polls.
I thought long and hard about whether to imitate Rush Limbaugh and create a 2011 version of “Operation Chaos” (when he instructed his listeners to take Democratic primary ballots to vote for Hillary Clinton in order to weaken Obama for the general election), and do as Andrew Sullivan has done (he endorsed Paul last week).
After all, the Doctor Jekyll part of Doctor Paul is damn good: Legalize drugs! Stop foreign wars! And a Paul v. Obama general election campaign could really push the President into surrendering to the inevitable generational change to come on drug policy. I would love to see that happen and probably a lot of you would too.
The problem with that scenario isn’t even the Mister Hyde part of Doctor Paul and his more whacky positions on other issues, not even his racist newsletter of yesteryears that the media has suddenly discovered (such “revelations,” in fact, can only help him with the GOP base). Rather, it’s this: Ron Paul can win Iowa and even possibly win New Hampshire, but he would still go down to defeat before the GOP nominates its 2012 candidate. He is not going to be the nominee. Take that to the bank. The Republican establishment would rally around anyone to stop him. And I would wager that Paul would not handle a fall from frontrunner any better than Bachman, Perry or Cain did. He’s not ready for that kind of prime time. I’m almost sorry to say that, because I have good friends that I respect that believe in Doctor Paul, and I hate to pop the air from their balloon at the dawn of their newfound hope. But if there’s one thing you get from The Field, it’s an honest assessment of what I think will happen before it happens, and there it is.
And while the “conventional wisdom” (the kind that is always wrong) spouts that a Paul victory in Iowa would hurt Gingrich’s chances, I would argue that it could be the best thing for Gingrich, because it puts Paul into play in New Hampshire where Romney otherwise should win there convincingly, and ties Romney down in the Granite State while Newt races ahead to plant the anti-Mormon land mines (yes, I know it makes some uncomfortable to hear any acknowledgement that there is still bigotry in the United States, but that's reality) in South Carolina and the rest of Dixie.
Paul, simply put, cannot withstand the scrutiny that would come upon him as an Iowa caucus winner. His ideas and positions, especially the best of them – the positions I agree with! – are too far outside the mainstream of thought in the far-right cauldron of Republican primary voters nationwide.
Gingrich knows this, which is why he can nonchalantly lower expectations for Iowa (which if he then wins it by “surprise” would make him the superstar Comeback Kid of the cycle, damning Romney before he even gets to New Hampshire). And so the mini-momentum of Paul provides another perfect foil for Gingrich’s red meat butchershop:
Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich took a swipe at rival Ron Paul on Thursday, suggesting that the Texas congressman's political base consists of "people who want to legalize drugs."
During a radio interview with conservative commentator John McCaslin, the former House speaker also said Paul is naive about the war on terrorism and Iran's nuclear program. "This is a guy who basically says, if the United States were only nice, it wouldn't have had 9/11. He doesn't want to blame the bad guys. ... He dismisses the danger of Iranian nuclear weapon and seems to be indifferent to the idea that Israel could be wiped out. And as I said, I think the key to his volunteer base is people who want to legalize drugs."
And the average Republican caucus voter, especially that 44 percent of hard core religious righters that are waiting for God to tell them which candidate to support, seeing Romney on one side of them, and Paul on the other, are probably going to start to hear that bold and masculine heavenly voice, with the reverb turned to ten, sooner rather than later, telling them that Gingrich is the only of their “acceptable” candidates tough enough to dispose of both Romney and Paul.
Nationwide, Gingrich has dipped in recent polls but still leads by an average of 3.8 percentage points. He has a breadth of support that none of his rivals have throughout the country. Republicans may not like him that much, but votes are not a Facebook status update for these people. Thirty one percent of Iowa Republicans still believe that Obama was born outside of the United States! That’s who they’re obsessed with. And they'd take almost anybody they thought might defeat him. And the more his rivals put Gingrich in the position where he seems justified acting tough and aggressive (which is his true nature) the more Republicans are going to conclude that he’s the guy with the backbone and the upper right cut to bloody up Obama. Sorry, but Romney and Paul do not inspire that kind of gladiator imagery.
Before concluding, I’ll say a few words about former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. He could still surprise in Iowa. With the graceless falls of Bachman and Perry, it’s now between Santorum and Gingrich as to who can possibly coalesce the Evangelical right behind one candidate in Iowa. But that would require a sudden Santorum surge in the New Year’s Des Moines Register poll. Short of that, either the Evangelical right remains divided, allowing Romney or Paul to thread the Hawkeye State needle, or, as it has in the past (anybody remember Pat Robertson’s victory there in 1988?), it will have a late break behind Gingrich or Santorum, and so far, Gingrich has a huge advantage in the mini-primary to become the anti-Romney and the anti-Paul.
In conclusion: I’m not ready to call Iowa yet for Gingrich or anyone else. I want to see the Des Moines Register poll in two weekends, not because I think it will provide a perfect snapshot, but, rather, because it will fix the expectations and the perceptions of which candidates have momentum. It will be at that moment that opinion starts to break.
And even if Romney or Paul win in Iowa, I am ready to project that, win or lose the first caucuses, Gingrich is not going away, he is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the primaries down the stretch, especially in the South, and I still think, as I wrote here in April 2010, that the media – perhaps partly out of the intense personal dislike he provokes – has always underestimated him. I dislike him, too. But that doesn’t color the cold and rational projections that y’all rely on me to make. This should have been evident to all the “professionals” of the pundit class 20 months ago! Of all the GOP hopefuls, he’s the only man with a plan. That makes him armed and dangerous and nothing that has happened so far, not even his sudden dip in Iowa polls, causes me to reconsider my general sense that in the sum of all the primaries and caucuses of the coming months, Newt Gingrich is likely to carve his initials with a switchblade through Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, or anyone else he perceives as standing between him and the Republican nomination.
And if that works for Gingrich in the primaries, he’ll then bring that knife to the gunfight of the general election. And that will likely have a less stellar outcome for him. So, put the popcorn on the fire and let’s sit back and watch the Republicans, for a change, kick the crap out of each other in a contest that is practically designed for the meanest man to win.