Just when hardcore conservatives had seemed prepared to settle for Mitt Romney to avoid further exposure of intraparty divisions, Newt Gingrich’s unlikely recovery has brought those divisions sharply and publicly into view. As Politico reported yesterday, conservative elites ranging from Tom Delay to Bob Dole have gone to the media en masse to warn voters of the perils of Newt. The Republican Party has rarely seemed more divided, and at the heart of those divisions is a disconnect between Republican elites and the voting base over the crucial issue of electability. Ironically, it is a disconnect that the elites are themselves partly responsible for creating.
Electability, of course, has long been Mitt Romney’s trump card, buttressed by a long series of general election polls showing him as the strongest candidate against Barack Obama. Beyond the polls, Romney best fits the entrenched Beltway conventional wisdom that candidates perceived as more moderate do best in close presidential elections. At the same time, most Republican opinion leaders think Gingrich could be a general election disaster, thanks to his long record of erratic public and private behavior and a personality that has often seemed unattractive to everyone other than stone partisans.
Amid all the tumult of the last 18 years there has been this constant: Gingrich has never been popular. Polls have never shown more than 43 percent of the public viewing him favorably at any point in his career. Gingrich backers say that he is inspiring. What he mostly seems to inspire is opposition.
But actual voters don’t seem to have gotten the memo. Exit polls in South Carolina showed that Gingrich beat Romney soundly (by a 51-37 margin) among the 45% of primary voters who said “can defeat Obama” was the candidate quality they valued most. The latest PPP poll of Florida, which gives Gingrich a 38 to 33 lead over Romney, shows the two candidates tied at 37 percent in terms of who has the best chance of beating Obama.
Rank-and-file voters, of course, do not typically spend time pouring over general-election polls, and likely they tend to view their own preferred candidate as most electable without taking polling date into account. (They also may not particularly trust polls, with the wild gyrations of primary polls this year perhaps proving them right.)
So something else may be going on to buttress broad-based assessments of Gingrich’s electability among non-elites. One theory, recently aired by Jonathan Chait, is that the regular drumbeat of conservative propaganda treating Obama as a national disaster and an ideological extremist (sort of a combination of Jimmy Carter and George McGovern) has convinced Republican voters that conventional electability is no longer relevant. What’s needed isn’t a reasoned appeal to undecided voters, but an assault against the forces conspiring to prop up Obama.
Gingrich doesn’t only benefit from this conviction—it’s at the center of his sales pitch.
A Newt-Obama debate would be a chance to expose the baleful realities of the president’s record and his un-American values. And voters would not be the only ones persuaded—one of Gingrich’s blogger fans suggested that even Obama himself might succumb to Newt’s powerful logic and communications skills:
[W]e need Newt as the nominee [because] he’s the candidate who has best been able to articulate just how bad Obama has been for the country. If he spent even an hour debating Obama, Obama would probably be convinced that his tenure has been a disaster.
This argument, unrealistic as it may seem, is in harmony with the conviction of ideologues everywhere that bold, uncompromising candidates have the power to conjure hidden majorities out of the morass of mushy-moderate politics. Indeed, some hard-core supporters of Howard Dean’s 2004 candidacy expressed similar views. What’s unusual is that such a baldly ideological argument has been wholly absorbed by the rank-and-file of a major political party, as evidenced by their decision to move further right in response to the two straight electoral defeats of 2006 and 2008. Of course, they were encouraged in this process by the explicitly ideological messaging of the conservative establishment, including media outlets like Fox News.
As a result, it is now a matter of fundamental faith among conservatives that the GOP went astray during the Bush years by betraying its conservative principles, competing with Democrats in the center, and blurring the differences between the two parties. The 2010 election results, which followed months of harsh Tea Party rhetoric in which virtually the entire GOP participated, seemed to confirm beyond reasonable doubt that lurching right is the way to win.
On the heels of that electoral success, the GOP rank-and-file is strongly disposed to project the move-right-to-win doctrine onto 2012. In Gingrich some have seen a candidate who has positioned himself as the heir to movement conservative heroes from Goldwater on, and who has offered a very specific vision of how he will achieve that moment of national satori, when a conservative electorate finds its unapologetic champion. After the two Florida debates, it’s possible Gingrich’s case for being an invincible debater is now losing credibility; if so, his threat to GOP elites could lose steam as well. If not, the last hope of National Review and its co-conspiratorsis to convince Republican voters—who have spent the past four years hearing that far-right rhetoric—that a moderate Mormon is more electable than a strident ideologue. If they’re unsuccessful, they have no one but themselves to blame.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic, a blogger for The Washington Monthly, and managing editor of The Democratic Strategist.