12.01.11

John Avlon: Mitt Romney’s Campaign Is Becoming a Sinking Ship

New polls show that Newt Gingrich’s surge is hurting Mitt Romney where it counts. The game isn’t over, but time is running out for Mitt to turn it around, argues John Avlon.

The horses are getting spooked in the Romney camp.

His poll numbers are plummeting in state after state, while Newt Gingrich is soaring across the board.

One reflection of the rising tension was an awkward interview with Bret Baier, in which the normally unflappable Mitt Romney got rattled by fair questions. It revealed the irritability of a man accustomed to being in control who's watching his plans fall apart in public.

Mitt’s aura of inevitability is fading because his strategy is failing.

At this time of year, political polls aren’t simply snapshots anymore—they measure deeper trends. Five weeks out from Iowa, political gravity is starting to take hold. Consultants will try to spin the candidate and senior staff, grim silences alternating with false confidence in the face of uncomfortable facts. But the picture ain’t pretty for Team Romney right now, no matter what the spinning man says.

Sure, there have been plenty of other people in the anti-Romney position before, averaging one a month: Bachmann (August), Perry (September), and Cain (October). But in this high-stakes game of musical chairs, Newt is surging when it matters most. Take a look at these polls:

Iowa: Team Romney announced that it would play in Iowa two weeks ago,
aiming for a knockout, one-two punch in the early states. It was a gutsy call that overrode rational hesitation born of his 2008 loss to Mike Huckabee. But the plan appears to be backfiring—a new Insider Advantage poll shows Gingrich leading Iowa with 28 percent, followed by Ron Paul at 13 percent, followed by Romney at 12 percent.

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NewsBeast: Mitt vs. Newt

New Hampshire: Newt’s Union Leader endorsement can’t entirely erase Romney’s commanding lead as an adopted hometown candidate. But the same poll now shows Newt within striking distance, 27 percent to Romney’s 31 percent, with Paul bringing in the bronze.

South Carolina: This social-conservative bulwark was always going to be a tough nut to crack for Team Mitt, but an American Research Group poll shows Newt at 33 percent with Romney trailing at 22 percent.

Florida: This is the traditional tie breaker in the Republican primary, and that’s where a new Insider Advantage poll shows Newt with a huge 41 to 15 percent lead.

There’s no way the ultimate number will be that far apart, but that the former dead man walking has such a large lead in this poll means Mitt’s got serious problems that all the Cuban-American-establishment endorsements in the world can’t solve.

There are deeper trends driving this decline. The Gallup poll offers a “positive intensity” measure to gauge the depth of supporter enthusiasm for candidates—and it’s clear here that the larger trends are moving in Gingrich's favor. In the newest poll, Romney has his lowest positive-intensity score of the entire campaign, while Newt has gone from flatlining in August to his highest ranking on record.

Even amid Herman Cain’s self-immolation, Mitt hasn’t been able to inch up in the polls. In fact, he’s been slightly losing ground in most polls over the past few weeks.

This is a reflection of the glass ceiling the supposedly inevitable candidacy of Mitt Romney has faced the entire campaign—he can’t seem to get above 25 percent primary support, no matter how crowded the field or how many spectacular flameouts leave him looking like the most responsible and electable man on the stage. Seventy-five percent of Republican primary voters would prefer someone else.

Even amid Herman Cain’s self-immolation, Mitt hasn’t been able to inch up in the polls. In fact, he’s been slightly losing ground in most polls over the past few weeks. A fascinating analysis by PPP shows that Mitt’s unfavorability ratings have increased 10 points among Republican primary voters since the beginning of the year in 14 key states, while his favorability rating has flatlined. It seems that the more voters know Romney, the less they like him—and to such an extent that Newt Gingrich looks good by comparison.

Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign famously labored under an aura of inevitability, failing to appreciate the rise of Barack Obama in time. She was also the next in line, the establishment candidate, the smart-money pick. It was almost precisely four years ago to the day that the late Robert Novak penned a column called “Hillary’s ‘Inevitable’ Flaw.” Likewise, when I worked on Rudy Giuliani’s presidential campaign, high-flying summer poll numbers started to fade with the coming of fall, and a 30-point lead in Florida evaporated entirely. Watching a lead like that fade is excruciating, a slow-motion implosion that can be resisted with all sorts of hopeful rationalizations. But hope is not a strategy.

In politics, as in sports, the best defense is a good offense, and the Romney camp will need to pivot off the inevitability strategy hard if it wants to reverse this broad-based decline. There is still plenty of time, but it is later than they think. The real political news this week isn’t Herman Cain’s latest scandal; it’s the GOP’s presumptive frontrunner being forced to contemplate his political mortality.