Back in October, I went up to Cambridge, Massachusetts to watch the eighth Republican primary debate of the season with Mark McKinnon, the Republican media strategist who had served as debate coach for George W. Bush, John McCain, and Sarah Palin. I was interested in McKinnon’s professional assessment of a Republican field whose succession of frontrunners, from Tim Pawlenty to Herman Cain, had nearly all been made or unmade by debate performances. At the time, Rick Perry was hurtling toward the abyss, Cain was bafflingly ascendant, and Mitt Romney was performing as advertised. But McKinnon called my attention to the darkest of the dark horses among them: Newt Gingrich.
“Gingrich is doing what Perry should’ve been doing—jumping in, interrupting people, taking on the media, taking on Obama,” McKinnon explained. Gingrich’s place on the risible margins of the contest, he argued, was paradoxically the source of his strength: “Look at his career—Gingrich was the ultimate back bencher. That was when he was at his most effective.”
At the time this struck me as deeply improbable, but I have to concede now that McKinnon was well ahead of the curve. More than any previous occupant of the GOP’s Anyone But Romney seat, Gingrich owes his recent ascendance to his debate performances, to the primary voters who thrilled to his flaying of Juan Williams and John King on Fox News and CNN last week. A lackluster performance in Monday night’s faceoff in Tampa notwithstanding, it remains central to his appeal headed into Jacksonville tonight. Writing from South Carolina on Saturday, Slate’s David Weigel described the archetypal Gingrich voter he had met in the days leading up to Gingrich’s decisive victory there:
The Gingrich voter proudly announced who he’d voted for, saying that he made up his mind in the last week, or after the last debate. (Exit polls backed this up: Voters who decided in “the last few days” went 44-22 for Newt over Romney.) After a while, the only differences between their endorsements were the verbs they used to describe what Gingrich would do to Barack Obama in debates.
In Charleston, a voter named Jayne Harmon claimed that Gingrich would “dismantle” the president.
In Monck’s Corner, I learned that Gingrich would “humiliate” him. In Columbia, I was told that Obama would be “lacerated” or “annihilated.” When Gingrich spoke, and repeated his promise to challenge Obama to seven debates, a biker named Vincent Sbraccia hoisted his sign and screamed: “Wipe the floor with him! Wipe the floor with him!”
A lot of these people considered Gingrich a genius, or at least a first-class intellectual. […] He’d outdebate Obama because he didn’t accept the notion that Obama was a competent, eloquent president. They didn’t accept it, either.
This belief may be inextricable from the web of conservative conspiracy theories about Teleprompters and so forth, but for the sake of argument, let’s grant the nub of the Gingrich voters’ point: The speaker, first-class intellectual or no, is a consistently entertaining presence in the debates, and Obama is somewhat less so. The president was stiff and a bit dour compared to his adversaries in the 2008 primaries; his relative victories in the general election debates had more to do with John McCain’s flaws—the anger, the strange wanderings around the stage—than with his own performances.
But Gingrich’s supporters, surely big fans of history, might want to consult it. Since the advent of television, there have been just two presidential elections that were arguably decided by debates: elections in which the candidate leading in the polls going into the debates ultimately lost the race. The first was 1960, when a sweating and sickly-looking Richard Nixon saw his lead evaporate in the bronzed glow of John F. Kennedy. The second was the 2000 election.
There is only one moment that anyone really remembers from the first debate between Al Gore and Bush that October: the moment when Gore, listening to Bush answer a question about his litmus test or lack thereof for judicial appointees, leaned over his podium and sighed heavily into the microphone. Voters polled immediately after the debate actually gave the match to Gore. But by then the sigh had begun to percolate through the media ecosystem, fueled by the enterprising efforts of Bush’s media team (“I don’t think it really would’ve become an issue if we hadn’t built it into one,” McKinnon told me). “I thought if you looked at Al Gore there,” William Kristol said that night on Fox News, “you thought back to the smartest kid in class who was always raising his hand, sighing audibly when you made a mistake.”
By the following day, the sigh had warranted a segment on the Daily Show. By the next, it was appearing in headlines, and polls showed viewers reconsidering, giving the debate to Bush. The vice president who faced Bush again ten days later had lost the air of aggressive intellectualism, but in the house-of-mirrors logic of political commentary this only mired him further in an unflattering narrative: he was now a man flailing to escape his own mistakes.
The thing people tend to forget about this saga is that Gore’s sigh wasn’t really a gaffe—it was part of his strategy. At the time, Gore was widely considered one of the toughest rhetorical combatants in the Democratic Party, and he had gone into the debate aiming to intimidate Bush the way he had successfully rattled Bill Bradley during the primaries. Where Gore, like Gingrich’s partisans, erred was in believing that this mattered. What Bush and McKinnon understood was that the general election debates were not really about winning on the merits—they were about trying on Bush’s commander-in-chief persona, and undermining his opponent’s. James Fallows, an ardent student of presidential rhetoric, has noted that Bush was in fact a dexterous debater in his gubernatorial races back in Texas. But by the fall of 2000, he had sanded his presence at the podium down to a blunt object: he projected strength, certainty, and little else. And it worked.
That Bush was able to close the gap with Gore in the debates was also because an unusually large number of voters, rightly or (in retrospect) wrongly, saw little difference between the two candidates. The stakes were thought to be so low, the actual issues hashed out in the first debate—judicial appointments, long-term funding plans for Social Security—so arcane to the average viewer, that an unusually large number of voters were actually in the position of having their vote swayed by a sigh.
Ironically, the Republican hopefuls’ anti-Obama hyperbole has all but guaranteed that this will not be the kind of election Gingrich or anyone else could actually win with a debate. It’s unthinkable that by the October showdowns, anyone remotely sympathetic to claims about socialism and shariah law would not have decided who to vote for.
Charles Homans is a special correspondent for The New Republic.