Mitt Romney, looking close to invincible a couple of weeks back, has bumped into major turbulence on his way to the Republican nomination. Romney lost the South Carolina primary pretty decisively to Newt Gingrich, who appears to have rallied past Romney with red meat, dog whistles, and a real willingness to take on the “elites”, who he accuses of a half century of driving America away from America. As Joe Scarborough points out in the clip attached Newt has managed to capture the Republican politics of “grievance”, showing fire and a willingness to say and do just about anything to keep the base excited.
A look at the numbers shows the dominance of Gingrich. Overall Gingrich won 40.4% of the vote, to Romney’s 27.9%, with Rick Santorum at 17%, and Ron Paul at 13%. Gingrich won all but three of South Carolina’s counties along with some dominance in areas that have to be of concern to the Romney campaign. Chuck Todd gives a couple of those numbers in the clip. Amongst voters who considered “electability” to be the most important issue, Gingrich had 51%, to Romney’s 37%. That has to be a cold hard slap in the face to the Romney campaign, which has been built around his self touted ability to defeat Barack Obama. Among those who consider themselves “very conservative” the news was even worse, with Newt pulling 48% to Mitt’s 19%.
Some pretty good political analysis on the Romney reversal is out there, but probably none better than Mike Murphy on Meet the Press. His comment that Romney had lost his way on message and been forced into a defensive crouch is right on the mark. Romney does not play defense well, and he certainly did not play it well in South Carolina. And Murphy’s point, that his failure to adequately play that defense cast a huge doubt on Romney’s electability, is also right on the mark. It is also borne out by the numbers. I thought Howie Carr made a very salient point in today’s Herald:
This is Mitt’s problem: He comes across in these debates as a wimp. Dudley Do-Right didn’t play in South Carolina. He’s afraid of his own shadow. He’s overtrained.
The Republican primary voters have this dream of a snarling Newt disemboweling Barack Obama in the debates this fall. Talk about myths.
So Newt captures some of the crowd anger that exists within the Republican electorate. And he does it by saying and doing things that will lead him to be absolutely emulsified in the general election were he to become the Republican nominee. Mitt, on the other hand, keeps playing the game as if he is already in the general election as the nominee, and that is hurting him with Republicans, who are demanding red meat, regardless of how it will impact the nominee against the President. Again back to Murphy, who states in the clip that Newt Gingrich cannot win a single swing state in the general. He is right. The Republican right has rebelled against party regulars in some important races over the past year. They nominated Christine O’Donnell in Maryland and Sharron Angle in Nevada when neither was the strongest Republican, giving away two Senate seats. Many would now like to replay that script in the Presidential race by nominating Gingrich, or someone who is not Romney. Newt is the best chance the Democrats have of retaking the House and retaining the Senate.