While last week’s election results in Colorado, Missouri, and Minnesota are rightly seen as evidence of a voter message about Mitt Romney’s negative campaigning, the vote was also transformational, indeed, historic in a way not yet appreciated.
Besides disapproval of the millions Romney spent on “scorched earth” attack ads characterized by news organizations like The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post as prodigiously mendacious, the results also had about them this remarkable fact: Never before had a GOP front-runner lost so badly this far into the nomination process — let alone in three states and on the same day.
Indeed, in Colorado, not only was Romney defeated by five points in a state he won with 60 percent of the vote four years ago but also this setback came at the hands of a candidate whom he had outspent by a margin of 40 to 1.
And while much of the media is suggesting Romney’s decline was unexpected, this historic show of weakness was actually previewed before his disastrous Tuesday on the prior weekend in Nevada — and in two different venues.
The first was the Republican caucuses. Following his clear victory in Florida, and having spent generously on advertising and organization in Nevada, which has a heavy Mormon population (26 percentof attendees), insiders expected Romney to comfortably exceed his 2008 totals there. Instead, Romney finished below his level of four years before, around 50 percent. (Another surprise was Newt Gingrich’s second-place finish, as Ron Paul, who at one time was expected to win the state, trailed behind.)
But Romney’s decline was also previewed — indeed flatly predicted elsewhere in a conference room where Gingrich had for the first time gathered his national campaign staff — a staff made up of schedulers, communicators and organizers who had worked with him for years and knew him well. In addition, there was a second group of experienced campaign and polling veterans from prior presidential races that Gingrich had been steadily working into the mix since his rise in the polls before the Iowa caucuses.
At the hotel conference room five-day marathon meetings over which Gingrich presided, in between campaign stops at the Nevada caucuses, the discussions focused on national as well as state-by-state strategy intended to “reset” his campaign after the first round of caucuses and primaries.
The charts that soon covered the meeting room walls at the Las Vegas hotel showed encouraging electoral (and delegate) arithmetic as the race moved forward from winner-take-all contests to more proportional delegate contests.
Even with Romney’s heavy money advantage, the data showed Gingrich could and should accumulate delegates until Super Tuesday when the start of the southern primaries gave him an advantage. (In fact, the numbers showed that before Super Tuesday no candidate was likely to accumulate more than 200 delegates, a small portion of the 1140 needed for nomination.)
Other encouraging electoral numbers came with Florida election analysis that showed that Gingrich had increased the Republican vote in nearly every county he carried while Romney had had the opposite effect, a pattern that had been true in prior contests. Indeed, Fox News released last week a chart called by commentator Charles Krauthaummer “the Gingrich graphic” that showed that South Carolina, which Gingrich won handily, had a 22 percent increase in Republican voting while GOP balloting dropped off sharply in states won by other candidates.
Gingrich and his staffers were also encouraged by other recent developments. With the endorsements of Fred Thompson, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Michael Reagan, Todd Palin, and, yes, Chuck Norris — and with Sarah Palin saying nice things about Gingrich on national TV— they saw the populist versus elitist contrast they wanted with Romney who was settling for endorsements from old-line figures like Bob Dole, John McCain and Tom Delay.
The final picture of the next four weeks that emerged was one not of short spurts but steady and patient build, with neither the calendar nor the way delegates got apportioned lending themselves to a quick victory by any candidate. (Indeed, as it turned out, Romney needed an all out effort to just “win” Maine and even then had to struggle to beat Paul – confirming his own weakening campaign.)
So too, cable news channels were seen contributing for their own reasons to a long or drawn out contest; indeed sometimes making the race more contentious by weakening whoever was the current frontrunner.
Against this backdrop, Gingrich’s nationally televised election-night speech after the Florida primary at a well orchestrated event in Orlando played well and had optics like “46-States-To-Go” signs that grabbed camera shots and blunted Romneyite attempts to suggest Gingrich was leaving the race.
All of this played nicely into the three themes Gingrich outlined the first night of the conference when, with a black marker, he had made one of the “whiteboard” presentations his staff knew so well.
One theme was “the grand narrative” — the insurgency vs. the establishment motif that emphasized his own claim to bold change while Romney was portrayed as “a timid manager of the Obama decay” and seen as Obama’s perfectly acceptable alternative to the liberal elites, Wall Street money types and George Soros-type billionaires.
The second stressed what Gingrich saw as his edge in substantive policy proposals – reflected in eight policy books, some bestsellers, some not.
A third theme though was soon the subject of wall charts in the conference room, a theme that had its focus in what Gingrich’s team saw as Romney’s own efforts at making himself an “unacceptable” or “unelectable” candidate. On these charts Romney was a “baggage candidate” making him easy prey for the Obama billion-dollar attack machine.
Besides his record as a Massachusetts moderate and long list of prior liberal positions, the charts listed other Romney negatives like Bain Capital connections with its company layoffs and a massive case of Medicare fraud as well as personal finances that included blind trusts, Swiss bank accounts and a multimillionaire paying a 13 percent tax rate.
Also getting special attention was a Romney tendency that had dominated the news right after his Florida victory. Saying he did not care about “the very poor” (because they had a safety net) and showing his remarkable capacity for self -destructive gaffes, his “very poor” comment took its place with others like “I like to fire people” or he didn’t want to hire illegal aliens while running for office or his challenge to Texas Gov. Rick Perry to a $10,000 bet.
But a final aspect of Romney as “the baggage candidate” who would be easily handled by Obama in the general election went to an increasingly damaging perception about Romney personally. Stepping off the stage after the last Florida debate Gingrich had asked “How do you debate someone who won’t or can’t tell the truth?” By the next day the Gingrich campaign had out a new TV spot focusing on three blatant Romney falsehoods in the debate and documenting five in total.
In the staff’s view though, Gingrich’s question about Romney in the Florida as well as other debates was a variation on a question they saw as increasingly likely to erode the Romney candidacy: “Can the people elect a candidate to the presidency they know can’t or won’t tell the truth?”
The problem they saw in Romney was not so much momentary “lying” done out of weakness but an almost Pavlovian reflex. When publicly challenged or at a loss for an answer Romney seemed to show a deeply engrained habit of mendacity, one that to the Gingrich aides had its parallel in his campaign ads.
Finally though, the Gingrich team focused on Romney’s weakness in embracing the campaign strategy apparently recommended to him by his two top aides – or the “baggage handlers” as the Gingrich staffers called them — attack-ad maestro Stu Stevens and longtime opposition researcher and dirt digger Matt Roades.
In emphasizing “inevitability “ and “electability” as Romney’s raison d’etre for running, the Stevens-Roades duo had sought to replace the usual substantive or policy messaging with multimillion dollar attacks run by themselves or the pro-Romney Super Pac and designed to blow away any credible challenger.
Moreover, the Gingrich planners were certain that Republican voters would eventually realize that while successful in depressing Republican voter turnout in Florida and Nevada, this negative messaging strategy augured poorly for GOP success in November.
Even amidst a storm of negative attacks Obama would likely hold onto his core supporters. In order to win in November, then, Republicans had to get more, not fewer voters to the polls.
Gingrich, who had pledged not to criticize other Republicans or run such ads, had seen the Stevens-Roades onslaught take him from front-runner to a third place finish in Iowa.
However, Gingrich and his team had also seen the Romney model to depress turnout as a fatal strategic error. In choosing to secure the nomination not by means of policy positions aimed at energizing party conservatives but attack ads aimed at rivals and predicated on the politics of personal destruction, the Romneyites chose to run and temporarily profit from blatantly untrue TV spots, with one spot that Romney publicly defended drawing four “Pinocchio’s” from The Washington Post for false charges. (E.g. Gingrich was “fined” for ethics violations as Speaker.)
All this, Gingrich’s staff knew, had only reinforced Gingrich’s determination to strike at a threat he saw not just to his own candidacy but the integrity of the political process.
At first though these complaints by Gingrich about Romney’s unprecedented use of millions in false advertising put him right where the Romney forces thought they wanted him. They were soon accusing him of unseemly “flailing” or “anger” by a presidential candidate.
Joining in this effort were their media allies. Fox commentator and Wall Street Journal columnist Karl Rove, a former employer and political mentor of Roades, accused Gingrich of “whining.” Similarly, Wall Street Journal columnist William McGurn (who has tweeted praise for Romney and Rick Santorum but criticism of Gingrich), wrote a gloating column about how after Florida Romney could “finish” off Gingrich.
For participants in the Gingrich meetings, however, the evidence was there in the lower turnout numbers that Romney’s attack strategy was turning off voters. Indeed, they believed that the details of polling confirmed that Gingrich’s larger message was beginning to get through, that if successful the Romney tactics of money and mendacity was a threat to the electoral process and could corrupt the greatest democratic system in the world for a generation.
Just this point Gingrich made in his evening press conference on the night of the Nevada caucuses. In a 22-minute session seen live by thousands of conservative voters in Colorado, Missouri, and Minnesota, a rested, feisty, even slightly amused Gingrich first hit Romney for his gaffe about “ the very poor” and his subsequent attempt to make up for it with a proposal for minimum wage indexing — a step that Gingrich assailed as hurting small businesses and setting back any hope of bringing down the minority youth unemployment rate.
But then Gingrich helped along the theme that his own team thought was beginning to emerge in the media narrative and the public mind, Romney’s negative attack mentality and his tendency to tell falsehoods in public debate.
While routinely criticized by political commentators, the biting news conference served an important purpose as the precursor to the upcoming delegate light primaries and caucuses. As one of the staff participants in the meetings, I told Newt that I thought he had hit just right the fissures in an already cracked Romney windshield and it would shatter within the week. And, it did.
However much it surprised others, some of us in the Gingrich meeting were not surprised to see voters use the blunt instrument of Rick Santorum’s underfunded candidacy to show what they actually thought of the Romney candidacy – a man with a great sense of entitlement but no sense of accountability. Moreover the vote also showed, especially in the Missouri primary, what happens when Romney is up against only one conservative challenger.
But if the Feb. 7 debacle for Romney represented a historic setback to a front runner it was also much more than that. Lost in the interpretation of the results is the old adage that in politics losing is winning. Thus, the likelihood is that with time, voters will reflect that Gingrich in taking the fire of $20 to $25 million in attack ads kept his cool, managed to win a resounding victory in South Carolina and, most of all, had the moral courage and rhetorical skill to warn the nation about Romney and his campaign.
In realizing that Gingrich successfully took on Romney and also trigged Ron Paul’s decline with a CNN Wolf Blitzer interview about the racially poisonous views expressed in the Texas Congressman’s newsletters, voters may begin to realize they have found the one candidate who could do the same to Obama in the fall.
In many ways it was reminiscent of Gingrich’s challenge to Democrats in 1994 – pundits' incredulity followed by ridicule followed by an unpredictable victory at the ballot box and the first Republican House majority in four decades.
But if Gingrich emerges with a moral authority from the race thus far, Gingrich’s “electability” is being helped in other ways. Besides a reputation as substantive and well versed in the issues – one he advanced last weekend at his CPAC speech with its emphasis on an economic plan that with its flat tax, zero capital gains tax and strong currency position has won the support of supply-siders like Reaganomics architect Arthur Laffer — media reports are noting that the traveling press not only finds Gingrich the most accessible and interesting of the candidates but the most likable.
And this finding is echoed in focus groups of voters run by Democratic pollster Peter Hart who said that while they were put off by Romney they found Gingrich the most likable candidate, reminding them of a favorite uncle or grandfather.
As a former Gingrich congressional intern who lived in his basement in 1979 and worked in his campaigns through the 80s during the lead-up to the GOP’s 1994 takeover of the House of Representatives, I know something about both Newt’s stick-to-it-tive-ness and his likability.
Faced in these days with skepticism, even scorn, from party elders who disliked his Contract With America and laughed at his hope of winning and keeping a House majority, Gingrich persevered and even (well, most of the time) cheerfully so.
That Gingrich inspires such loyalty and a 24/7 willingness to work for him among current staffers too comes as no surprise to those of us who have known him, a loyalty that was very much on display at the Super bowl Party Gingrich and his wife Callista held for the staff at the conclusions of the five-day strategy conference.
After emerging the day before from the bubble of a hotel meeting room, many of these staffers had been authentically surprised to see press reports saying that at his Nevada Saturday press conference their candidate was going to announce his withdrawal from the race. Indeed just before the press conference one staffer got Gingrich’s authorization to tell the media “Up in Boston they keep saying that it is over. And then it isn’t. Well, it isn’t going to be over until the Tampa convention. Or until Romney drops out. Whichever comes first.”
Much the same attitude was to come out at the end of the Super Bowl party with the Giants victory. Because while Gingrich himself was pleased at having accurately picked the winner at his press conference, his staff was reacting to a comment by NBC commentator Cris Collingsworth who took note of news reports only eight weeks earlier saying Giants coach Tom Coughlin’s career was over in New York because he hadn’t delivered a winner.
The Gingrich staffers laughed out loud at this, seeing in Collingsworth’s comment an unmistakable parallel and bright augury for their own boss.
So with Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado last week shattering Romney’s only issue — inevitability, the Gingrich Super bowl partiers appear to have been right in their confidence. So too, the conclusions they reached in their Vegas conferences seem to be holding up.
First, that the early contests had clearly established what the Romney forces now openly admit, that the only competition they really fear is Gingrich who has a depth of operations and resources that Santorum, the other conservative candidate, cannot match.
Indeed, in Nevada, Gingrich proved that when deployed his ground operations could outperform the Paul army. Second, that while in the next two major races Romney’s ability to outspend by 5 to 1 in attack ads and drive down turnout will have real impact in Arizona and his other home state of Michigan , the approach of Super Tuesday — with10 states and 437 delegates at stake – makes this less likely. With the key primary battlegrounds of Georgia (Gingrich’s home state), Oklahoma, Tennessee and Ohio and the key caucuses Alaska, Idaho, and North Dakota, Romney’s the negative attacks are likely to have the diminished impact they had in South Carolina.
Moreover, the Gingrich “dream team” endorsements of Gov. Nathan Deal and Herman Cain in Georgia, Thompson in Tennessee, Watts in Oklahoma, Todd Palin in Alaska will be a factor.
Third and finally, the Gingrich planners projected that with only 396 delegates chosen in March, no clear frontrunner is likely to emerge until Texas (155 delegates on April 3) and there too the endorsement and help of Gov. Perry is to their advantage.
Yet for all of the arithmetic showing the race will go on and no single set of states could put the contest away — through Super Tuesday less than 800 delegates will be selected and many will be proportionally distributed — those of us who were part of Gingrich’s first-quarter huddle in Las Vegas also detected more ambiguous yet powerful forces at work.
And while one was certainly voters revulsion at negative campaigning (Romney’s negatives are by 17 percent among some voter groups) that perhaps others didn’t see coming, the other was a perception that whatever the early or mid season setbacks, Gingrich was now bringing to the nomination drive what Giants coach Tom Coughlin brought to the playoffs and Super bowl — a range of experience and a moral force that would prove dispositive.
In 1994, there was only one person who consistently believed Republicans could weather the storms and capture control of the Congress for the first time in four decades; in 2012, he is a candidate for president.
Randy Evans has known Newt Gingrich since 1976, chairing his congressional campaigns in 1988 and 1998 and chairing Gingrich private companies from 2004-2012. Evans also served as the outside counsel to the speakers of the 104th-109th Congresses (Gingrich and Hastert).
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