The Frontrunner Turns Into a Newt and other horserace notes

I don’t want to make a habit of focusing the Sift on the horserace for the Republican nomination. I often criticize the corporate media for indulging in the horserace’s drama and conflict (as if democracy were really all about personalities) and ignoring the serious business of governing the world’s most powerful nation (as if public issues were just bludgeons for candidates to swing at each other). I don’t want to fall into the same trap.

But then a week like this past one blows away all my virtuous intentions.

After New Hampshire, Mitt Romney’s nomination was supposed to be inevitable, and South Carolina was about to give him the final stamp of approval. But by Saturday, Carolina’s landslide winner had turned into a Newt. And by this morning the witchcraft is nearly complete and Gingrich is leading the first post-SC poll of Florida as well.

InTrade still gives Romney a 62% chance of being the nominee, but that’s crashing from over 90%. If that first poll holds up and Gingrich really does win Florida, he’ll be the frontrunner.

A number of things came together to cast this spell: Gingrich turned a devastating personal story into a counter-attack against the media. He also effectively dog-whistled to racists, taking advantage of an almost all-white SC primary electorate. Plus, Romney fumbled the tax-return issue (Ruth Marcus said he was “choosing to pull off the Band-Aid with excruciating slowness”) and did a poor job of parrying attacks related to health care and abortion.

In the short run, Sarah Palin was right about ABC’s interview with Gingrich’s ex-wife on Thursday. Mrs. Gingrich II claimed that Newt asked for an “open marriage” so that he could continue his affair with the future Mrs. Gingrich III. Palin said the interview would

incentivize conservatives and independents who are so sick of the politics of personal destruction, because it’s played so selectively by the media, that their target, in this case Newt, he’s now going to soar even more.

Gingrich played it that way in Thursday evening’s debate, launching a crowd-pleasing counter-attack against CNN’s John King. Gingrich already had momentum, but that debate performance locked up South Carolina for him. His anti-media tirade was the lead on all the news shows (even though I thought Rick Santorum had a much stronger debate overall).

Remember, though, that the sexual harassment charges against Herman Cain also gave Cain a short-term boost. In the long run, I think the “open marriage” phrase will stick in the public mind and be a slow-but-steady drag on Gingrich. At a minimum, his rivals have a new rhetorical hook to use. Expect to hear metaphors about Newt’s open relationship with the truth, with conservative principles, and with anything else opponents want to raise doubts about.

Rush Limbaugh may think “everybody has an angry ex-spouse“, but it’s equally true that every woman has a man who done her wrong. (For at least three women, that man is Rush Limbaugh.) If they start identifying Newt with that guy, it’ll cost him.

The NYT’s Charles Blow:

Gingrich seems to understand the historical weight of the view among some southern whites, many of whom have migrated to the Republican party, that blacks are lazy and addicted to handouts. He is able to give voice to those feelings without using those words. He is able to make people believe that a fundamentally flawed and prejudicial argument that demeans minorities is actually for their uplift.

In short, Gingrich has been dog whistling. He doesn’t openly say: “Lazy blacks expect you hard-working white taxpayers to support them.” But if you believe that already, you listen to Gingrich and think, “That’s exactly what I’ve been talking about!”

Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates responds to Gingrich by quoting Jane Austen:

when people are determined on a mode of conduct which they know to be wrong, they feel injured by the expectation of anything better from them.

Hence the sense of injury when politicians like Gingrich are accused of pandering to racists, when in fact they are and know that they are.

A few facts about Gingrich’s “food-stamp president” rhetoric and the way he tries to make the issue food stamps vs. paychecks:

  • White food-stamp recipients outnumber blacks almost 2-to-1. Percentage-wise, blacks are more likely to be on food stamps than whites, but it’s not a black issue.
  • About half of food-stamp households with children already have jobs.
  • Nationwide, the average per-person food stamp benefit is $134 a month. That might keep you from starving, but it’s not going to replace a job.

In short, there’s no reason to believe that cutting food stamps would motivate people to get jobs. And looking at the causality the other way, liberals also hope for a job-rich economy that makes food stamps unnecessary. The question is how to get there. If conservative policies created jobs, we wouldn’t have been on the brink of a depression at the end of the Bush administration.

Meanwhile, open marriage (or polyamory) is topical again. Salon explores the ups and downs, and the NYT has a free-for-all.

Meanwhile, the Republican establishment is freaking out. Josh Marshall explains why with Gingrich’s national favorable/unfavorable graph (which doesn’t reproduce here).

As he galvanizes the most extreme elements in the Republican electorate, Gingrich’s unfavorability with the general electorate is spiking. Nate Silver referenced the same graph while saying Gingrich “would be one of the most unpopular candidates ever to be nominated by a major party.” (Gingrich’s favorability numbers have only gotten worse since Nate dismissed his chances last March.)

Real Clear Politics’ average of national polls has Obama narrowly ahead of Romney (47%-45%), while crushing Gingrich (50%-40%). But in the CNN exit polls, the South Carolina primary voters mainly looking for an Obama-defeating candidate picked Gingrich over Romney by a wider margin. He got 51% of those votes compared with 41% overall.

This is what happens when people believe their own propaganda. Tea Party Republicans claim they’re not a far-right fringe, they’re mainstream America. Believing that, they think mainstream America hates President Obama like they do. Gingrich does the best job of inspiring and channelling their hatred, so they think he must be the best candidate to send into the general election.

They’re kidding themselves. In the real world, even people who doubt Obama’s competence tend to like him personally. So going after Obama (or his wife or his kids or his dog) with nasty and racially polarizing rhetoric will backfire on the national stage. And while Republicans love to make fun of Obama’s teleprompter— another dog-whistle about the intelligence of blacks — Obama actually thinks on his feet quite well. In a debate, he won’t be the punching bag Gingrich supporters imagine.

Despite his disappointing showing in South Carolina and low national poll numbers, Rick Santorum is right to stay in the race. Here’s his scenario: Gingrich will crash again, Romney will be damaged goods — and then it’s Santorum or a brokered convention, which hasn’t happened in half a century.

Through the magic of video editing, Mitt Romney debates Martin Luther King.

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  • Stephanie  On January 24, 2012 at 10:41 am

    I am cheered by the thought of an Obama-Gingrich race after months of being depressed over America’s politics. Both men are intelligent above average and articulate and well educated in relevant topics. So they are equally matched. Neither is an extremist crackpot.

    They’ve only to present their disagreement on what America’s lifestyle should be and each it will do so with clarity. Americans will go to the polls knowing what they’ll be getting and choose a culture for our future. Whatever Americans choose will be what we deserve and if we suffer afterwards, that will be our own fault.

    Works for me.


  • By Pulling Up the Stakes « The Weekly Sift on January 23, 2012 at 1:51 pm

    […] The Frontrunner Turns Into a Newt and other horserace notes. A wild week of Republican politics tempts me into covering the horserace instead of the issues. […]

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