By Patrick Murray
The Monmouth University Polling Institute
THE LATEST RASMUSSEN poll has Newt Gingrich with a 21 point lead over Mitt Romney among Republican voters. How did this happen?
Well, a few caveats. First, there is no such “lead,” because there is no such thing as a national primary in which these candidates are competing. At this stage of the game, the only polls that tell us anything at all about the race are those in Iowa and New Hampshire, and to a lesser extent, South Carolina, Florida, and Nevada. Once the early contests winnow down the field, the preferences of the national “electorate” shift toward the leading contenders. Although, I should note that Gingrich is ahead in recent polls from all of those states except New Hampshire (and Nevada where there have been no reputable polls).
Secondly, the Rasmussen poll results tend to swing much more widely on the “flavor of the month” candidate than other polls have. So, I’m not sure that Gingrich is quite at 38% to Romney’s 17%. But it does make a great headline, doesn’t it?
My examination of the GOP nomination preference polls over the past six months indicates that each candidate has a base of support. For most – Ron Paul, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Gingrich – support levels consistently register between 5% and 10%. For Romney, it hovers around 20%.
According to the RealClearPolitics.com polling average, Romney’s support over the past six months has ranged from 17% to 25%. Bachman’s support went as high as 14% in mid-July before tailing off. Perry then zoomed over the 30% mark for a short time in mid-September before plummeting. Then Cain reached a poll average of 26% in mid-October and held it for a couple of weeks before scandal caught up with him. Now we see Gingrich averaging 27% nationally.
My rough read of these polls is that about 20% of the Republican electorate just can’t settle on a candidate. [In the Rasmussen polls, it looks more like 30%. I’m not sure why his sample has more of these fickle voters, but it certainly makes for more interesting results.]
The bottom line is that each of the prior “surging” candidates had a five or six week period where their numbers were ticking up, before topping off and dropping. Newt’s numbers started to climb four weeks ago. So the question for Newt Gingrich is whether he will peak too early (i.e. will his numbers start dropping by mid-month) or whether his rise is timed just right for a strong showing in Iowa on January 3rd.
Regardless, considering how the former House Speaker’s political obituary was written just a few months ago, his ascendance into the leading spot is shocking. It’s even more astonishing, because he accomplished this while focusing his campaign strategy almost entirely on attacking the media, including his fellow travelers on Fox and syndicated radio.
I have to admit there’s something about his biting-the-hand-that-feeds-you approach that I admire. It has made the press apoplectic. “He’s using attacks on us to avoid answering substantive questions,” they say. They’re right, of course, but what they miss is that Newt also has a point. His criticism of how the press focuses on process over policy is generally on the mark. And that brings us to where the GOP nomination battle stands today.
I recently did a radio interview about the polls on America Now with Andy Dean. Dean used the analogy of college football bowl invitations to describe how Gingrich is overtaking Cain. Basically, you have two teams with an 11 and 1 record. One team has some quality wins but suffered one loss late in the season. The other team had a horrible, embarrassing loss early on, but has managed to scrape out quiet wins for the remainder of the season. Which team gets invited to the major bowl? [I would have actually used the NCAA hoops Big Dance at-large bids, but you get the picture.]
It can be argued that Gingrich’s “sins” – both personal and political – are substantively more egregious than Cain’s. However, since the Cain revelations are new and Gingrich’s have been known for some time, Gingrich is able to use Cain’s downfall to his advantage.
Can you spot the irony in all this? Newt’s recent success can at least partially – if not mostly – be attributed to the “mainstream media” he has railed against. The relevance of the Cain stories for Republican voters is largely because of how they are being highlighted in the press. In media terms, the Cain story is sexy (excuse the pun) whereas the Gingrich story is old news. The media have moved on because it no longer has the titillation factor (apologies again).
So if Newt can perform the unthinkable and wrest the nomination from Mitt he may have to send out thank-you notes to all those members of the press he blasted along the way.
Of course, there’s still a month to go before the first caucus. That’s more than enough time for another Gingrich transgression to make its way into the mainstream media and scupper his chances.