There’s been one constant thus far in the remarkably volatile Republican contest: Each time Newt Gingrich rides a wave of anti-establishment energy to the front of the field, he hits a wall as the attacks on him mount and voters start sounding out the words “President Gingrich.” It seems to be a self-correcting equation for Republicans, who seem to continually elevate Gingrich the insurgent, only to demote Gingrich the frontrunner.
After an initial burst of momentum when he entered the race, Gingrich quickly faded before rocketing to the front of the field again at the end of November, when his debate performances electrified the many Republicans who had yet to succumb to the non-phenomenon the Onion memorably dubbed “Romneymania,” On December 1, Gingrich, atop the Iowa and national polls, outright proclaimed that “I am going to be the nominee.” A month later, he finished fourth in Iowa and then fourth a week later in New Hampshire before beginning his latest surge in South Carolina, followed closely by his Florida fade.
Analysts pointed to two key reasons that Gingrich keeps seesawing in the affections of Republican primary voters. While Romney is the face of a well- funded and -staffed campaign with “traditional fundamentals,” said Republican strategist Rob Collins, a partner at Purple Strategies, Gingrich is a effectively a one-man show. Collins compared the speaker’s campaign to Pets.com, the famed 90s dotcom company that had a hugely successful IPO based on hype and wildly optimistic projections before rapidly falling to earth and into bankruptcy. That leaves Gingrich “only as good as [his] last press release,” said Collins.
Dan Schnur, John McCain’s communications director on his 2000 campaign, said support for Gingrich’s campaign is inherently volatile. “Gingrich does best when he is building off a strong debate performance,” said Schnur, who called those performances “Gingrich’s only protection against the Romney’s paid media blitz.” By turning in two mediocre performances at the Florida debates, Gingirch again lost that protection.
In Iowa, nearly 50% of all the political ads that aired in the months before the caucuses were anti-Gingrich, according to a report from Bloomberg News, pouncing on the former speaker’s old consulting contracts with Freddie Mac and his deviations from the party line on health care and global warming. The speaker’s poll numbers collapsed, and Romney again began signaling “inevitability” by pivoting toward the general election and President Obama.
But after Gingrich rose up again in South Carolina, even the Iowa assault has seemed mild compared to the ongoing one in Florida. In the past few days, establishment figures across the conservative movement have attacked Gingrich, ranging from Bob Dole to Ann Coulter The front page of the Drudge Report seems to have turned into an extended arm of the Romney press shop, pumping out opposition research about how the former House Speaker criticized Ronald Reagan, lied in the previous debates and is generally unfit and unelectable. Romney surrogates have started freelancing in their efforts to score the snappiest anti-Gingrich one-liner, with John McCain saying Thursday, “I think we should send Newt Gingrich to the moon and Mitt Romney to the White House.” McCain then asked the audience: “Is that a good line? I just thought of it.”
Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic consultant who helped tear down Gingrich for Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign, when the president tried to make the unpopular speaker into the face of the Republican party, said, “there is no Republican Party.” It’s been replaced, he said, by “a bunch of factions,” which he said opens up a space for Gingrich to run as “an anti-establishment candidate like Reagan, Nixon or Goldwater,” as Republican voters use the primary to work out what they want their party to be.
But in this primary season, Republicans seem to change their mind about their vision for the party on a weekly basis. Over the past 90 days, the dips and trades in Gingrich’s poll support have had more peaks and valleys than the pockmarked lunar surface of which he is so fond.
Gingrich has built the ultimate modern campaign, based entirely on the rhythms of political journalism. If he does not “win the morning” with an attention-grabbing sound bite, he has lost the day. After his weak debate performances here and again under heavy fire from Romney, Gingrich is conceding he’s likely to lose Florida but vows that he’ll remain in the race through the convention. But with no more debates for nearly a month for to sustain his fourth-time around insurgent phase, it will be tough for him to keep the show going, let alone orchestrate a fourth act as frontrunner. And even if he should pulls off another rise, his last three trips to the top suggest it’s a safe bet he won’t hold that ground.