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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Polls, Debates and the Instability of Public Opinion in the GOP Presidential Contest

So the instability of the GOP presidential contest is now reaching epic levels. Just when Mitt Romney seemed to be on the verge of virtually locking down the GOP presidential nomination with a victory in South Carolina (and even as his national poll standings cleanly broke what had earlier looked like a “barrier” of about 25%), he’s by all accounts lost his lead in SC and is rapidly losing his lead nationally. And his “new” challenger is not the guy long expected to be the “viable conservative alternative to Romney,” Rick Perry (who has finally dropped out of the race), or the co-winner in Iowa, Rick Santorum (who is actually losing ground in SC), but none other than Newt Gingrich.
This is remarkable for a number of reasons. Newt had zero momentum coming out of Iowa or NH (he finished a poor fourth in both states). He is the ultimate known quantity in Republican politics, and has been left for dead in this cycle not once but twice (most recently when a barrage of negative ads by Ron Paul and by Mitt Romney’s Super-PAC demolished his support-levels in Iowa and drove his unfavorables into negative territory). Yes, he benefited from a big infusion of cash into his own Super-PAC, which quickly used them to buy TV time in SC for a savage attack on Romney, but the effectiveness of the ads was called into question when Newt was blasted by a variety of conservative opinion-leaders (notably Rush Limbaugh, and in more muted tones, SC’s own right-wing boss, Jim DeMint) for heresies against capitalism and complicity in Democratic talking points.
The only variable that really explains Gingrich’s revival is the return of televised GOP candidate debates–which were largely absent during the crucial run-up to the Iowa caucuses–where the windy former Speaker has excelled, typically by attacking panelists and “the media” for silent partnership with Obama. And this is puzzling according to the conventional “take” on the subject by political scientists, who have long scoffed at the tendency of horse-race pundits to overrate the impact of candidate debates.
It’s true that much of the “debate over debates” involves general elections, in which all sorts of fundamentals–particularly party identification and objective conditions in the country–make any particular “moment” in the contest less important than it sometimes appears. The growing number of nomination-contest debates in the last two cycles–along with such new phenomena as their sponsorship by ideological media like Fox News, with its intense “base” viewership–may truly indicate that the old assumptions are simply outdated. Or the close relationship between Gingrich’s debate performances and his poll standings may simply reflect an unusually uncertain Republican electorate that may ultimately “settle” for Romney, but isn’t there yet, and is still searching for signs of life elsewhere in the field.
If Gingrich does win SC, and gets a big bounce in Florida and nationally, it will represent a real challenge to how we all understand the dynamics of a presidential nominating contest. Certainly Newt remains vastly vulnerable to a renewal of the kind of attacks he sustained in Iowa (not to mention reminders of his personal history that he managed to bury, at least temporarily, by rousing conservatives in anger at John King in last night’s CNN debate), and Romney has the resources and the elite backing to bring holy hell down on his head. But for the moment, it’s surprisingly clear that any lead in this contest can evaporate at the turn of a well-televised phrase.

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