Why Gingrich's Campaign Success Defies Conventions

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The candidate has raised less money than his competition, has few endorsers, and will provide plenty of material for democratic attack ads. So why is he surging in the polls?

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The national and state polls are pretty clear: Newt Gingrich has moved into the top position for the Republican presidential nomination. Other candidates have surged in the past several months, first Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, then Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and, more recently, former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain. But over the past week or so, even some Republican operatives who do not support Gingrich are starting to take seriously the possibility that his lead will last. Holding a 15-point advantage in the new Gallup national tracking poll, as well as leads in multiple polls in Iowa, South Carolina, and other key states, Gingrich has clearly become a force.

Even after stipulating that the former House speaker is a very smart guy with more ideas than any three politicians you will ever find, I'm still having trouble wrapping my brain around the possibility that he will be the GOP nominee. To accept that scenario, you have to buy the idea that the laws of political gravity have been suspended this year, that things that normally matter a lot aren't going to matter this year--or, to borrow a title from a popular book, This Time Is Different.

We are asked to believe that having campaign money isn't important. That campaign organization and infrastructure don't matter, even in a fight for delegates spread across 50 states. That it's OK for the entire campaign brain trust of the apparent front-runner to reside under one head of hair and between one set of ears. That it's feasible for one person to not only devise but also implement a national strategy and tactical plans for every state.

Then we are asked to believe that Republicans, specifically conservatives, are going to ignore some of the more problematic aspects of Gingrich's background and policy positions. I personally like and respect Gingrich a great deal, and he has always been nice to me and generous with his time, so I won't rehash all of his potential problems among conservatives. Let's just take one--sitting on a love seat with the reviled Nancy Pelosi talking about climate change, in a 2008 ad that he was asked to do by former Vice President Al Gore, another Democrat not held in exceedingly high regard among Republicans. How is that appearance going to look when an opponent cuts it up and puts it into an ad aired on Fox? A large closet, if not a whole warehouse, of opposition research on Gingrich is being readied and is just now starting to be unloaded. This material is arguably much richer than anything ever assembled against any other candidate. After all, Gingrich has been in the political arena for a very long time and has had far more than his share of detractors willing to share their grievances.



None of this is to suggest that Gingrich cannot win the Republican nomination. It is to suggest that, now that the spotlight is aimed almost exclusively on him, Gingrich has to clear very real obstacles. We should be mindful of the 2008 entrance polls of Iowa caucus attendees and the exit polls of New Hampshire primary voters. Both showed that approximately 70 percent of participants made up their minds in the last four weeks before the balloting; current polls in these states, meanwhile, indicate that 60 to 65 percent say they may not make up their minds until the final weeks. In this Republican nomination contest of musical chairs, the music hasn't stopped yet.

From my perspective, I believe that fundamentals still matter. Someday, someone who has raised very little money may win a presidential nomination. Someday, someone with minimal campaign organization and infrastructure may become the nominee. Someday, someone who has served in Congress with hundreds of fellow party members and dozens of former staff but who has very, very few of them endorsing him and working on his campaign may win. But we are asked to believe that all of this is going to happen in 2012.

Republicans will have to make a decision that none of this matters, that they will affirmatively choose to ignore the mountain of attacks that are about to be unleashed on Gingrich. A very smart friend suggested recently that Gingrich has performed so well in the debates that Republicans can see him--and only him--standing toe to toe with President Obama in a general-election debate in the fall. Perhaps so. Never far from my mind are the 1994 midterm elections. While most of us in the political-analysis business saw the GOP wave coming (I even coined the phrase "tsunami" to describe it), everyone--ironically, save Newt--underestimated how wide and deep it would be and whether it would be big enough to capture a net gain of 40 seats. (The wave ended up exceeding all expectations, at 52 seats.) One factor in the skepticism was that Republicans had gone 0-20 in attempts to win House majorities starting in 1954. I had heard predictions of the GOP winning majorities in previous election years, and they had always been wrong.

It's a variation of the idea of subjective probability, that because something has never happened before, at least not in modern times, it probably won't happen this particular time. We knew that someday Republicans would win a House majority, but would it be in 1994 when a 40-seat gain was necessary? Eventually, someone will overcome all of the challenges that Gingrich faces and win a presidential nomination. But will it be this year? Maybe it will be. For me, however, I want to get further into the process before I am willing to concede that the political laws of gravity aren't going to apply this time.

This article appeared in the Saturday, December 10, 2011 edition of National Journal.

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Charlie Cook is editor and publisher of The Cook Political Report and a political analyst for National Journal.

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