Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich listens to staff during visit to Children’s Hospital, Friday, January 20, 2012, in Charleston, South Carolina. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
A visit to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference Friday morning provided a window into the central conundrum of Newt Gingrich’s campaign: how a candidate could be so appealing to voters that he keeps resurging, and so flawed in his history and campaign execution that he may blow every opportunity.
Talking to voters showed how Gingrich is weathering the storm created by the embarrassing revelation that he asked his second wife, Marianne Gingrich, for an “open marriage” so that he could continue to cheat on her.
Outside the college basketball arena where the conference is being held, a group of older women who drove up more than five hours on Wednesday from Longwood, Florida, to canvass for Gingrich were waving signs for passing cars. They are happy to give Gingrich a pass on his infidelity. “I’ve read about how he changed his life and I believe him,” says Jane Yeacle. “He’s a lot more mature now. That was a long time ago.” The events in question were in 1999 when Gingrich was 56 years old. It was after his heroic exploits to which he devotes most of his stump speech: Republican electoral triumphs in 1980 and 1994 and the tax cuts of the 1980s and 1990s.
At the debate on CNN Thursday night Gingrich bellowed at moderator John King for asking about his ex-wife’s allegations. “I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office,” said Gingrich. Luckily Gingrich is not a decent person, so he’s still running for president.
The debate audience ate it up. Speaking at the SLRC this morning, conservative blogger Erick Golub summarized the sentiment with his opening joke: “I apologize for my voice. I went to the debate last night and the minute John King spoke he made me sick.”
The problem for Gingrich is that he has staked much of his career on arguing for the importance of family values and traditional marriage. After the debate his spokesman, R.C. Hammond, and his surrogate, J.C. Watts, clarified that the Gingrich campaign does not claim his marital history is off-limits, only that King should not have opened the debate by asking about it. Whether you think King should have waited an hour to ask his question or not, it hardly seems significant enough to justify the anger Gingrich displayed.
But to Gingrich’s fans his anger is a feature, not a bug. Just as conservatives adore New Jersey Governor Chris Christie for verbally bullying liberal inquisitors, Gingrich’s fulmination against liberals, “elites” and lazy poor people is what they like about him. Throughout the primary process Gingrich’s attacks on the media for asking what he considers to be the wrong question has played well with conservative audiences. It’s related to his racial dog whistles. Both are ways of signaling to angry, old white people that he shares their feelings of aggravation at cultural foreigners, be they minorities or journalists.
And like the racial politics, it’s especially helpful to him in South Carolina, where the Republican electorate is fueled more by cultural resentment than it is in Iowa or New Hampshire. That’s why Michael Tomasky writes of Gingrich’s South Carolina surge, “It has turned politics completely away from the question of who might govern the country well to who can best embody our hatreds and revenge fantasies.”
The archetypal Gingrich supporter might be Doris B., an octogenarian SLRC attendee from Jackson, Mississippi, who refused to tell me her full last name. She asked me if I’m proud of my president, and when I said, “Sure,” she joked, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were a mental retard.” Doris so strongly opposes Obama because “he has created more racial problems. I’ve never had racist feelings until him.” Doris complains that Obama is “imperious” and adds, “I don’t like his work ethic.” Her friend Genie, also a Gingrich supporter, complains that Obama wants to “support additional babies out of wedlock.” Marriage is a big issue for Genie. When I asked why Gingrich twice leaving a wife for a new one isn’t a problem she noted, “At least he married them. A lot of [politicians] just shack up.”
But the debate also exposed some of Gingrich’s weaknesses. Rick Santorum was relentless in calling out Gingrich for being a cynical operator rather than a committed conservative, especially on social issues, during his tenure in Congress. He also scored points by emphasizing that Gingrich supported the TARP bailouts and an individual mandate to buy health insurance. At times it seemed as if Santorum felt personally betrayed by Gingrich.
He’s not the only one. In the spin room afterward, former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu recalled how Gingrich lied to President George H.W. Bush about supporting his tax deal in 1990. (Sununu was serving Bush as White House Chief of Staff at the time.) Indeed, Gingrich is despised for his dishonesty and selfishness by much of the Republican establishment. That’s why so many of Gingrich’s former colleagues in Congress are publicly supporting Mitt Romney and criticizing Gingrich’s record.
Gingrich clearly believes that Santorum’s voters would largely be his if Santorum dropped out. That’s why he constantly points out that he and Santorum combined have more supporters than Romney. But when you ask Santorum voters why they support him, they often cite the fact that they know what he truly believes. If Santorum does drop out, many of his supporters might see Gingrich as a less electable version of Romney.
While your average Southern Republican activist might not be swayed by Gingrich’s personal history, some religious social conservatives may be. “It reinforces the concerns some people already have [about Gingrich],” says Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.
The question for Gingrich is whether demonization of his enemies can boost him over these hurdles. Just as conservatives reflexively dismissed and slandered the women who accused Herman Cain of sexual harassment and adultery, some are impugning Marianne Gingrich’s character and motivation for coming forward. “Marianne should go back in her coffin before she turns to dust,” said Roy Luke, a Republican activist from Georgia who is leaning toward Gingrich.
Aside from Gingrich’s past personal and political baggage, the other big limiting factor on Gingrich’s ability to defeat Romney is the poor campaign he has run. In June most of his staff quit out of frustration with Gingrich’s stubbornness and the campaign’s resulting dysfunction. Since Gingrich’s first surge in December, the media have largely bought the line that getting rid of professional consultants and letting Newt be Newt has solved that problem.
But on the ground his campaign is a mess. His advance team is an incompetent disaster. In New Hampshire I went to a Gingrich town hall at an American Legion Hall. No one was there, and the door was locked. Eventually, I found a sign written in pencil and taped to a side window saying the Gingrich event “up and moved” to another location. On Wednesday, Gingrich didn’t show up for a press conference at the State Capitol in Columbia. His press team didn’t send notice of the cancellation until twenty-two minutes after the event was scheduled to begin.
On Friday morning his campaign’s amateurism was on full display. Gingrich was supposed to address the SLRC at 9 am in a sizeable arena. At 9:15 there were more journalists, around twenty, than there were audience members in the seats. Instead of Gingrich enduring the embarrassing spectacle of speaking to a nearly empty room, someone announced that a “scheduling conflict” prevented Gingrich from attending.
How did the Gingrich campaign fail to fill the room? A halfway capable presidential campaign can easily get a hundred supporters to an event in a major city by targeting their supporters in the area or organizing busloads of College Republicans. Ron Paul spoke an hour after Gingrich was supposed to, and the crowd size quadrupled with Paul supporters who came to see him and then left. If Gingrich can’t do that, how can he turn out his supporters on Saturday?
Perhaps he won’t have to. He is clearly connecting with voters, when he bothers to keep his engagements to speak to them. Jenny Beth Martin, a national Tea Party coordinator, says, “The South Carolina Tea Party people like Newt a lot.”
A better opponent than Mitt Romney would still beat Gingrich, because of all his aforementioned disadvantages. But if Mitt Romney were a better candidate, this whole campaign would be a foregone conclusion.