Things are shaping up predictably enough in Florida today that I will venture my punditry in prebuttal form, like those congressmen who put out their responses to the State of the Union address long before it's been given. My aim now is not so much to look ahead to what comes after Florida as to correct some misinterpretations of the 2012 primary roller-coaster that I've seen floating around in recent days. As I see it, the topsy-turvy story of Mitt and Newt has a pretty simple explanation: Gingrich rises, before Iowa and again in South Carolina, on the basis of his appeal to a certain part of the Republican id and of voters' dissatisfaction with Romney. He then gets quashed by Romney's money. Period.
Any theory that ventures far beyond this is strikes me as fairly dubious. For one thing, I've seen several people in recent days state as fact that Gingrich's rise in South Carolina was driven by his attacks on Romney's riches and work for Bain Capital. Marc Fisher, in an otherwise well-turned long piece in Monday's Washington Post about the history of wealthy candidates, writes that Romney "saw his Republican presidential campaign poll numbers tumble after former House speaker Newt Gingrich began portraying him as a detached millionaire who made his fortune by cutting jobs as much as by creating them." Not really. Polling shows that Gingrich's attacks on Bain, both in his own rhetoric and in the form of the brutal "documentary" paid for by his Super-PAC, were having little impact on Romney as the attacks geared up in the days before and after the New Hampshire primary. No, Newt's remarkable jump in the polls in South Carolina, and nationally, lines up almost entirely with his rousing performances in the two debates in South Carolina -- debates marked less by his attacks on Bain and Romney's wealth than by his showdown with the moderators over his "food stamp president" rhetoric and his messy personal life. Before the first debate, on January 16, all the South Carolina polls had Gingrich in the low 20s; after the debate, polls showed him jumping into the low 30s. To the extent that Romney was hurt by Bain and his wealth, I found in my talks with South Carolina voters, it was because he equivocated over releasing his taxes, not because voters were particularly upset about what was in his taxes. This is an important distinction. If South Carolina Republicans, of all people, were as receptive to attacks on Bain Capital and Romney's wealth as Fisher and others suggest, Romney would be in really big trouble in the general election, where the broader electorate would presumably be even more open to such attacks. But in fact Romney was not done in by those attacks in South Carolina, and, as I argue in this week's new issue of the magazine, attacking him over Bain in the general election will require a very well-crafted argument to resonate with an electorate that has complex views of wealth and capitalism.
And why did Newt hang on to win South Carolina after surging in the debates? Well, partly because of the state's very favorable GOP electorate, which, as I explained on election night, is wound up into such a particular tizzy over its socialist president that it wanted a candidate who would bloody Obama, not just replace him. But he also hung on because, quite simply, Romney did not bring down the hammer in time. Whereas Romney had had weeks in Iowa to overwhelm Gingrich with Freddie Mac and Pelosi-on-the-couch ads, I spoke with voters in South Carolina who were utterly unaware of Gingrich's Beltway self-dealing. Romney has of course managed to rectify this oversight in Florida, outspending Gingrich by $15.3 million to $4.3 million, if one takes into account all Super-PAC spending and even if one counts in Newt's column the union spending against Romney. And much of that spending has served to remind people of the Gingrich who is at such blatant odds with his Tea Party aura: the McLean, Va. "influence peddler," in Romney's words, who has cashed in on his Washington sway. Of the 3,267 ads Romney ran in Florida, an astonishing 99 percent were negative attacks.
Romney is now of course underplaying the impact of the spending, trying to cast his comeback as the result of some sort of transformation in his campaign. I don't buy it. Yes, he was sharper at the last two debates than he was in the ones in South Carolina, but the real difference between the debates was that Gingrich was raring to go for the ones in South Carolina and oddly morose for the ones in Florida. It was the same listlessness I saw in him in the final days in Iowa, as if he had decided there was nothing to be done against the wave of Romney's big bucks. If there is any question at all about this wild past month, I suppose it's why Gingrich has let himself get so visibly down in the face of these attacks. After all, there have over-matched candidates before who've managed to assume more of an underdog resolve in the face of such a barrage, as if hoping that sheer gumption and spirit can carry them to the top. But Newt, for all his anti-socialist rhetoric, seems to be a Marxist materialist when it comes to his campaign prospects: the dollars and ad buys are what counts; he sees the tally on the wall and it makes him, in Mitt's unsympathetic diagnosis, kind of sad.