CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa—Members of Congress are shaking in their boots about the possibility of Newt Gingrich as the Republican presidential nominee. GOP operative Karl Rove wrote of the campaign, “It’s embarrassing to be so poorly organized.” Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker’s recent piece on Gingrich was headlined “The GOP’s Death Wish.” National Review went so far as to say that nominating Gingrich “would be to blow this opportunity” to defeat President Obama.
And the crowds chant, “Newt! Newt! Newt!”
This disconnect between the political establishment and the grassroots is becoming familiar. We saw it in the epic Democratic 2008 primary, when Hillary Rodham Clinton swept up the lion’s share of the endorsements but Barack Obama attracted hundreds of thousands more Facebook followers. We saw it in 2010, when Rand Paul won the GOP Senate primary in Kentucky even though Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell went to bat for his rival; and when Charlie Crist, despite a rare endorsement from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, lost the Senate primary in Florida to Marco Rubio.
With polls showing a crisis of confidence in government and other institutions, voters are warier than ever of conventional wisdom. Not only don’t they care about what party elders think, some evidence suggests that they are tending to behave like teenagers rebelling against their parents. If Mom and Dad don’t like Johnny because he has long hair and rides a motorcycle, it must be love.
“The Republican Party doesn’t get it,” said Jim Conklin, cochairman of the Iowa Conservative Union and part of Gingrich’s “Team 10,” a project that advocates for states’ rights under the 10th Amendment. “They keep looking for us to rally behind the person that they chose, and we don’t care.”
Many of the undecided voters who came to Mitt Romney’s appearance last week at an animal-feed manufacturing plant here in Iowa’s second-largest city are torn between the two front-runners. While Washington obsesses over the former House speaker’s volatile temperament and ethical trespasses, 56-year-old Robert Tow of Cedar Rapids remembers the more-positive aspects of Gingrich’s heyday.
“He balanced the budget,” Tow said. “I want to see a fiscal conservative who is going to take on the deficit and get Washington under control.” The fact that guys like Karl Rove are bashing Gingrich doesn’t bother him a bit. “Rove is a Washington establishment guy,” Tow said. “You can pick those guys out on TV. I like to do my own research.”
He considers Gingrich’s past marital infidelities a nonfactor. “It’s nice to hear someone who can admit they made mistakes,” Tow said.
On the other hand, that family-values glow given off by Romney’s 42-year marriage and five sons also appeals to him. “You’d like your daughter to marry one of Romney’s kids.”
Tow’s wife, 56-year-old Ann Tow, likes Romney’s commercial that features his family, an obvious jab at Gingrich’s three marriages. “It shows who he is and that he has core values,” she said of the Romney spot. But she also appreciates that Gingrich can take a punch. “Whoever the nominee is going to be better be tough,” she said, “because the Democrats are going to shred him.”
The couple’s thought processes reflect the broader debate going on in the Republican Party over the most important characteristic for the 2012 nominee. Are GOP voters predominantly looking for someone who can fix the economy? Someone who can go toe to toe with Obama? Someone without a lot of personal baggage? Someone who would be fun to have a beer with?
In their zeal to find an alternative to Romney, so well-branded by his critics as an insufficiently conservative flip-flopper, GOP voters seem willing to overlook some of Gingrich’s own flip-flops and other blemishes. He leads Romney 40 percent to 23 percent nationally in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, but Gingrich is a weaker general-election candidate against Obama. The president bested Gingrich in the poll 51 percent to 40 percent. Against Romney, Obama’s lead shrank to 2 percentage points.
Romney’s broader appeal to moderates and independents may start to resonate with primary voters—if their anxiety over beating Obama trumps other concerns (like beer-drinking suitability). “Voters may start to think more strategically as we get closer to the caucus,” said Erik Helland, an Iowa state representative from Johnston who has not endorsed a candidate. “No question that Newt has got the momentum, but I do get a growing feeling in the last week that the barrage of hits are starting to take a toll.”
Part of Gingrich’s success in Iowa may come from his long history in the state. Darrell Kearney, founder of the Conservative Club of Des Moines, said he met Gingrich in 1988 when he was campaigning for Jack Kemp. Gingrich has come back innumerable times, forging a connection with the grassroots that has eluded Romney. “Newt has spoken at Lincoln Days ad nauseum,” Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn said.
Even though Gingrich is the consummate Washington insider, a former speaker, and an all-but-lobbyist, his success at leading the so-called Republican revolution in 1994 helps him cultivate his image as a renegade. “For me, you are known by your enemies,” Kearney said. “When I see the liberal establishment and inside-the-Beltway crowd hammering Newt relentlessly, day after day and night after night, that tells me they are scared of him. That makes me want him to be president.”
This article appears in the December 17, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.