Decorah, IO—Newt Gingrich has chartered a bus to carry the former House Speaker and third wife Callista across Iowa in a final push for first-in-the-nation caucus votes.
But his campaign is not going anywhere. The new Public Policy Polling survey shows Congressman Ron Paul, the maverick libertarian from Texas whose disciplined campaign is the polar opposite of Gingrich’s, extending his lead, with 24 percent support. The Republican Republicans love to hate, Mitt Romney, is at 20 percent. Gingrich, formerly the leader in the race, has collapsed to 13 percent. Gingrich is just two points ahead of Congressman Michele Bachmann, who is at 11; and just three points ahead of former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and Texas Governor Rick Perry, both of whom are at 10. The prospects that Santorum, Bachmann or Perry will finish ahead of Gingrich are real—and rising.
Indeed, the real story of the last week in Iowa may be not of Gingrich’s campaigning but of where the anti-Romney sentiment that briefly rested with his candidacy will shift next. If it goes, for instance, toward Santorum, this race could yet see another twist. And Gingrich will be watching from the sidelines, as the structure of the caucuses favors better-organized candidates with wild-eyed cadres. While Gingrich was an explosion waiting to happen, his collapse creates a whole new set of challenges for the Republican Party faithful that steadfastly refuses to get on the Romney bandwagon.
Gingrich was the last “name” prospect in the anti-Romney category. Now, the GOP base will have to start scraping the bottom of the barrel for Santorums, or repurposing Bachmanns. Or perhaps join Bill Kristol in begging someone, anyone else to enter the race.
The Gingrich explosion creates the potential for chaos.
And make no mistake, Gingrich is exploding.
Already, the number of stops on the Gingrich bus tour has been cut in half—from the forty-four the former House Speaker announced just before Christmas to just twenty-two. And, with all due respect to eastern Iowa, opening stops at the Dubuque Golf and Country Club, Dyersville’s National Farm Toy Museum and Mabes Pizza in Decorah did not make this tour look like a victory lap.
The painful political truth is that the man who would like Republicans to believe that he is the master strategist who alone can displace President Obama has hit a serious speed-bump, called “Virginia.”
Gingrich lives in Virginia, the state that still refers to itself as “the cradle of presidents”—a bow to the fact that it produced commanders-in-chief in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Yet he will not be on the ballot when Virginia Republicans make their primary pick.
With his barely functional organization and seat-of-the-pants scheduling, Gingrich has never really transitioned from book-touring minor celebrity to serious presidential contender. And that fact was driven home by the Virginia fiasco.
Virginia sets a high bar for candidates who seek a place on its primary ballot. Contenders must obtain 10,000 valid signatures, with 400 gathered in each of the state’s eleven Congressional districts. To meet the standard, a candidate must have a basic organization—along with enough popular appeal to get people to stop during the holiday season and fill all the boxes on a petition.
Barack Obama easily met the standard on the Democratic side.
So did Mitt Romney and Ron Paul on the Republican side.
But Gingrich, despite his recent run-up in the polls, and despite his decision to relocate his campaign to Virginia in order to make a final push for ballot status, fell short.
So, too, did Perry, Bachmann, Santorum and Jon Huntsman. But at least they were dignified in failure.
Had Gingrich objected early and thoughtfully to the Virginia ballot barriers, he might have joined the other candidates who did not qualify in protesting ballot-access standards that block serious contenders from making the list. That protest would have been legitimate and could have extended to other states with high bars. As Richard Winger’s Ballot Access News noted, “Professor Rick Hasen, an election law expert, commented that when a state ballot access law bars a majority of the leading contenders from the ballot, something is wrong with the law. The Republican Party now generally recognizes seven contenders for its nomination, and in Virginia, only two of them qualified.”
He made a big deal about how he would make the Virginia ballot.
Then, when he failed, his “organization” compared its organization blunder to Pearl Harbor, in a bizarre statement from campaign director Michael Knull: “Newt and I agreed that the analogy is December 1941. We have experienced an unexpected set-back, but we will re-group and re-focus with increased determination, commitment and positive action. Throughout the next months there will be ups and downs; there will be successes and failures; there will be easy victories and difficult days—but in the end we will stand victorious.”
Apart from the generalized lack of perspective, which has characterized Gingrich’s campaign from the start, that statement is unlikely to do the candidate much good in a state where elderly voters form a significant portion of his potential “base.”
But where Gingrich really blew things up was with his announcement that he would run a write-in campaign in Virginia.
There is a long history of write-in candidacies shaking up Republican primary races; write-in contenders as diverse as Dwight Eisenhower and Henry Cabot Lodge have actually beat established candidates. It would have made a lot of sense for Gingrich to press just such a boundary-busting strategy.
Unfortunately for him, he did not check it out.
In addition to its high bar for ballot access, Virginia does not allow write-in votes in primaries.
Ultimately, the Virginia fiasco will be a mere footnote to the story of the 2012 presidential race.
But it provides a powerful signal for Republicans who want to mount a serious presidential campaign: Newt Gingrich cannot get his act together. Indeed, says Romney, Virginia reminds us less of Pearl Harbor than of “Lucille Ball at the chocolate factory”—a reference to a classic TV show in which the comedienne was overwhelmed by a bobbon-spewing assembly line.
As for Democrats, they’re more than happy to help Newt.
The former chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party will be helping a conservative group try to overturn the barriers to Virginia write-in runs.
Republican stalwarts are likely to recognize why that is happening.
And that will write the story of this week in Iowa.
Gingrich will finally campaign hard in the state. But even as he does so, his numbers will slip.
The question now is whether he finishes in the top three or out of contention.
It is a real possibility that Gingrich will fall to fourth place, or worse, because he has never taken Iowa or any other state on the Republican primary calendar seriously.
Who might finish ahead of him?
Santorum and Bachmann are dramatically better organized in Iowa, and Perry has a lot more money.
Evangelicals could go for any of the three—not out of love but out of desperation to remain politically relevant. That was evidenced Wednesday, when Pastor Andrew Steven, author of the book Making A Strong Christian Nation, announced: “Voting for Michelle Bachmann or Rick Santorum will help bring God’s economic recovery to the USA because they best stand for God.”
There seems to be some attempt in Iowa to get evangelicals to coalesce around Santorum, the former senator and career candidate who is comically being referred to as a “fresh face.” What that really means is that Santorum has not been treated seriously enough up to this point to have been subjected to significant scrutiny.
Santorum will never be the GOP nominee. But he may yet get his fifteen minutes of fame because, as an anti-Romney, Santorum is credible. And that’s a strength that Newt Gingrich will have a hard time claiming after his botched response to “Pearl Harbor.”