The Gallup national tracking poll and various public and private polls conducted in Iowa indicate that the bloom is coming off former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s rose, just as it did for Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain before him.
The most ideological two-thirds of the Republican Party desperately want a hard-charging, take-no-prisoners conservative messenger as their nominee. They seem to be continually disappointed.
In the five-night moving average Gallup track of Republicans nationwide, for example, Gingrich had peaked with 37 percent in the Dec. 1-5 track. He maintained a 15-point lead over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who had 22 percent at the time. All other candidates were in single digits.
Since then, the bombardment of criticism from much of the Republican and conservative establishment has focused on Gingrich. In Iowa, negative ads from so-called “super PACs” allied with various opponents have trained their fire on him, taking a heavy toll on the Georgian’s newfound support.
In the Gallup national tracking poll released on Monday afternoon—conducted Dec. 13-18— Gingrich’s support has dropped to 26 percent, with Romney holding in second place at 24 percent and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas running third with 11 percent. Perry and Bachmann, R-Minn., round out the field with 7 percent apiece. Former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., received 4 percent, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman picked up 2 percent.
A new CNN national poll done Dec. 16-18 shows a similar flattening result at the top— Gingrich and Romney tied with 28 percent each, Paul in third with 14 percent, Bachmann next with 8 percent, followed by Perry at 7 percent, Santorum with 4 percent, and Huntsman at 2 percent. Nine percent picked no one or had no opinion.
Noteworthy from that CNN survey is the fact that when the 436 Republicans interviewed were asked whom they would consider supporting (if they weren’t already) and whom they would not consider supporting, 43 percent said they would not consider supporting Paul, 42 percent could not back Bachmann, 33 percent couldn’t go with Perry, and 24 percent saw Gingrich as the no-fly zone; the lowest “couldn’t support” of the five candidates tested was Romney—just 16 percent said they couldn’t back him.
Some 54 percent of those who didn’t pick Perry as their first choice said they would consider supporting him; Romney was 2 points back with 52 percent; Bachmann was second choice among 46 percent; Gingrich was a backup for 44 percent; and Paul finished last in that category with 39 percent.
This question is a good test of elasticity—which candidate has the ability to expand support—and suggests that the talk that Romney has a low ceiling, and baggage that prevents him from moving further up, may be greatly exaggerated.
The one most recent public poll of 597 likely Iowa Republican caucus attendees, conducted Dec. 16-18 (margin of error, +/- 4 percent) by the Democratic-affiliated firm Public Policy Polling, showed Paul having surged to 23 percent. It also had Romney in second place with 20 percent and Gingrich third with 14 percent. Rounding out the field were Bachmann, Perry, and Santorum, each tied with 10 percent. Huntsman was in seventh with 4 percent, with former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson in last place with 2 percent. The remaining 7 percent were undecided or for someone else. Some insiders doubt that Paul has surged that high, suggesting a flatter top to the race.
It would seem that the focal point of attacks on Gingrich is his lack of a real campaign apparatus compared to the organizations of Paul or Romney, both now and four years ago. Critics also remark that Gingrich lacks the more networked organizational structure. They argue that he does not use, for example, the home-school network that former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee painstakingly put together four years ago.
Gingrich is dropping particularly fast, unable to financially or organizationally push back.
It seems that Paul has the best field organization. Santorum has committed the most time to going the most places—all 99 counties in Iowa as of a week or so ago. Bachmann has her own cadre of passionate backers. Romney has a strong but low-profile structure working on his behalf as well. It is designed to maximize performance, while minimizing expectations and risk.
Gingrich had momentum, but that now seems to be running on vapors.
My hunch is that the Iowa results will be something of a muddle. If I had to bet on someone coming out on top it would probably be Paul, a unique contender, but one who can draw very deep and intense support. Yet, he has little potential to broaden his reach, given some of his more exotic positions. It’s not hard to find Republicans who totally agree with one or two things he says. Once they are exposed to other positions he has taken, though, they just as vehemently disagree. In a seven- or eight-way field, Paul can do fine. But as the field narrows and the focus shifts onto him and his specific positions, his support naturally narrows.
If I were a contender for the Republicans, I wouldn’t mind having the race narrow down to two, with Paul being the opposing candidate. The ranks of Republicans who are ambivalent about the killing of Osama bin Laden alone is a rarefied group. Another four or five issues can narrow it down to the small single digits.
There are no other debates or scheduled big events between now and the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses. The holiday season appropriately draws public attention. The next two weeks ought to be a fairly quiet, stable period, with nothing likely to shake things up until the caucuses are held.
The big question is whether a politically and financially viable alternative to Romney emerges from Iowa. If Paul wins, given the lack of elasticity of his support, the libertarian’s victory would be a very favorable outcome for Romney. While the more conservative wing of the GOP wants something more exotic than the former Massachusetts governor, they don’t want to go that far.
This article appears in the December 20, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.