I know it seems I’m too taken with the subject of Newt Gingrich. And yet, this development bears closer scrutiny: Several weeks ago, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a column by Peter Brown of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. Brown wrote that two past political stars, former Vice President Al Gore and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, are essentially “dead on arrival” in the race for the White House.
I offered a counteranalysis, which the newspaper declined to provide its readers. So I’ll share it with the rest of the country.
I agree that Gingrich and Gore might appear unelectable right now. But remember that pollster John Zogby declared early in the 2004 race that John Kerry would defeat George W. Bush.
Remember, too, in 1980 when Ronald Reagan had high polling unfavorables nationwide and was not the choice of most of the “Republican elite” in critical primary states.
Also recall that just a year before Richard Nixon suddenly jumped into the 1968 race, he was thought to be GOP political baggage.
It was the primary/caucus system that ended up nominating these and other candidates supposedly unacceptable to the public. Nixon-Humphrey? Yuck. Reagan against the wounded Jimmy Carter? That race hardly met with wild enthusiasm either.
If nothing else, this should teach us that early national primary polls are not always instructive. Just for fun, let’s look at what’s really happening now.
First, while former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., lead in national surveys for the GOP, and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., have captured the early attention of Democrats, the reality is that a combination of early maneuverings — organizational strengths and weaknesses, or rescheduled primaries — are making the polls largely irrelevant.
On the Republican side, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is out-organizing his rivals in most key early-primary states by tying up much of the Bush leadership team as his own.
Gingrich already has a very strong base of grassroots supporters in several early caucus/primary states, thanks in large part to his having laid the groundwork prior to the 1998 election cycle for a possible presidential bid in 2000.
He’s particularly strong in Iowa. His top political adviser of over 30 years is from there and made sure Iowa Republicans flourished when Gingrich was in charge in Congress. That’s why Gingrich has repeatedly been invited to speak at annual GOP events in Iowa, while other announced presidential candidates haven’t.
If any of those other candidates somehow slip up over the coming months, Gingrich could enter the race with an organization already built. His ability to captivate small crowds could bode well for him in the caucus environment. If he were to win Iowa, he would have the beginnings of a Nixonesque return to prominence, a la 1968.
Al Gore’s entry point might come later. Suppose Obama, Clinton and perhaps Sen. John Edwards, D-North Carolina, or others split small, early primaries and caucuses among themselves. It’s a not-so-well-kept secret that Florida’s legislature is intent on moving that state’s primary date forward to immediately follow New Hampshire’s. That would cast Florida’s huge shadow over other early primaries and give Gore a chance to tap into Clinton’s base in the critical Palm Beach and Broward counties in South Florida. There’s still plenty of sympathy for Gore from the 2000 contest, when many Democrats believed he was “robbed” of the presidency.
This would also rob Obama of the opportunity to score a big potential win in a stand-alone South Carolina primary, where the Democratic electorate is heavily African-American.
As for the general election, Newt Gingrich might seem a negative, but in the eyes of some voters, he wouldn’t be nearly as negative as Hillary Clinton. Al Gore would seem to be more in touch with independent voters than, say, Mitt Romney, who is feverishly working to capture his party’s right wing. Moving back to the middle following the primaries might be problematic for him.
No one is saying either of the two “G men” — Gingrich or Gore — will pull off a political miracle in 2008. Even so, writing off such big-time players this early is premature to the point of foolhardiness.