Is Gingrich Really on the Rise?

With Herman Cain dropping off, national polls show the former House speaker surging. What does it mean for the 2012 race?

Newt Gingrich - AP Photo:Charlie Neibergall - banner.jpg

This post has been updated.

Life is good for Newt Gingrich these days.

Five months ago, the former House speaker returned from a Mediterranean cruise, only to find that his campaign team was quitting. Now, while we can't say he's back on top (since he was never on top to begin with), Gingrich is near it, having risen from the ash heap of history to become the consensus third-place candidate in the GOP presidential primary race after a spate of new national polls this week. The latest, from CBS, shows him tied for second with Mitt Romney at 18 percent.

The current moment looks promising for Gingrich, in theory. If the Republican race comes down to Mitt Romney vs. Someone Else, it's about to be Gingrich's turn.

Common sense suggests Herman Cain can't possibly remain a national favorite as more and more women accuse him of sexual harassment. (Cain is still doing well in straightforward, who-will-you-vote-for polling, but the latest numbers should trouble him; people have always felt very positively about Cain, but he's slipped in that regard of late.) Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann have already taken their turns.

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Gingrich isn't susceptible to the same pitfalls as the rest of the revolving door of non-Romneys. People know who he is. Bachmann, Perry, and Cain were unknown quantities when they came into the spotlight, and the excitement they generated wore off.

But here's why you shouldn't buy Gingrich as the new anti-Romney just yet: National polls don't really reflect who's leading. That comes down to the views of Republican voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, Florida, etc. The later early states, like Florida, can be deeply influences by the votes of the early early states, as Rudy Giuliani learned in 2008. Momentum matters.

Right now, we don't really know who's leading in Iowa. The most prominent poll in Iowa, put out by the Des Moines Register, hasn't released new numbers since before Cain's scandal, when Gingrich was tied for fifth. (He now ranks third, according to a lone Insider Advantage poll conducted Tuesday.) Numbers are scarce in New Hampshire and South Carolina, though Insider Advantage shows him polling in third in the latter.

Gingrich's campaign also doesn't have very much money, as presidential campaigns go. At the end of September, Newt 2012 was almost $1.2 million in debt, with just under $400,000 in the bank. He had raised just over $800,000 in the previous three months.

Gamblers, at least, haven't been fooled by Gingrich's seeming uptick. On the betting market, shares of Gingrich-to-win are cheap, reflecting a 12.6 percent chance of victory:

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Gingrich may find his best shot at an actual state victory in the relatively newfound animosity between the Perry and Cain camps.

Poll numbers and money aside, the Iowa caucuses are about mechanics -- and that's why it's important to consider the Perry-vs.-Cain dynamic, which has sprung up since the former pizza CEO's campaign started flinging accusations that a Perry consultant had planted the sexual-harassment scandal.

Votes can sway in the Iowa GOP caucuses. Less stringently organized than a primary or general-election polling place, the caucuses work like straw polls; Republicans gather in caucus sites and hand in pieces of paper. Candidates and representatives of candidates are allowed time to address the caucusgoers -- to argue, for instance, why another candidate's supporters should switch their votes. Cain's staff and volunteers will have time to argue why Perry's supporters should vote for Cain instead, and vice versa.*

The Perry people might not want to support the Cain people, and vice versa, leaving Gingrich to either collect some of that support or remain the last candidate standing. A second-place finish in Iowa would help him, a lot.

His rise in the national polls could help Gingrich raise much-needed money. In the first month-and-a-half of his official candidacy, Perry saw an enormous poll bump and walked a way with an impressive $17.2 million. Cain, too, enjoyed a fundraising renaissance after national polls showed him as a co-leader.

But for Gingrich to really give Romney a run for the GOP nomination, he'll need a lot more than the modest poll bump he's seeing now.

Image credit: Charlie Niebergall/AP

* An earlier version of this post inaccurately characterized Iowa GOP caucus proceedings, describing instead the rules for Iowa's Democratic caucuses. We regret the error.