TAMPA, FLORIDA — Assuming Tuesday’s primary vote here goes the way the polls say it will, Newt Gingrich will have to figure out a way to make good on his promise to take the primary fight all the way to the GOP convention. And he’s going to have to do it fast.
Gingrich seems intent on playing this year’s Hillary Clinton, refusing to let defeats and polls stop him and pushing on until the bitter end. Some conservatives have already begun to ponder the ramifications of that scenario. But they probably don’t need to. Virtually nothing about Gingrich’s campaign resembles Clinton’s, which was able to hold on for months thanks to a huge well of money and well-built national infrastructure.
So while Gingrich backers say he can stay in due to the strength of his support among conservatives if nothing else — and Democrats would certainly like to see the brutal primary continue — it’s difficult to see how Gingrich can make good on his promise to plague Mitt Romney until the bitter end.
“If he wants to continue, great, good for him,” said Hessy Fernandez, a Republican strategist and member of John McCain’s team in 2008. “But I just don’t see how he can do it without the organization. And the funds. And the campaign. And the…you know.”
“I think he’s a wonderful candidate,” she added, “but I think he’s running out of time.”
Democratic 2008 veterans, for their part, scoff at comparisons.
“Neither Mitt nor Newt is acting like either the President or the Secretary on their worst day,” Jerry Crawford, Midwest director for Clinton’s presidential campaign, told TPM.
So where exactly does the Gingrich-as-Hillary storyline really stack up? These are the key factors that would help Newt emulate the redoubtable Mrs. Clinton. Comparing how he stacks up to her in these areas is revealing.
As she gave Obama a run for his money in 2008, Clinton pivoted to building support among her working-class base. Gingrich is doing the same thing, trying to appeal the the most conservative in the GOP base who are still terrified at the idea of a former Massachusetts governor carrying their water into the general.
Florida state Sen. Thad Altman (R), who switched to Gingrich after the first guy he endorsed, Herman Cain, dropped out, laid out the case for Gingrich working the party faithful.
“The heart and soul of the Republican party is behind Newt Gingrich,” Altman said. “I think he needs to continue doing what he’s doing now, and that’s getting out in front of the people. He’s garnered a lot of endorsements — Cain endorsed him kind of late, I think he’s going to have a bump because of that.”
Altman blamed the barrage of negative ads that hit Florida for Gingrich’s decline here, and said Gingrich “just needs to keep doing what he’s doing” (namely, reaching out to the party’s conservative base) if he wants to stay in.
So: Gingrich may have this one going for him if he wants to go into a long battle. But while he dominated with virtually all the groups in South Carolina, exit polls in New Hampshire showed Romney won with pretty much every segment of the GOP in that state. If Romney can get back to his old ways and win over conservatives in Florida and beyond, it’ll be tough for Gingrich to continue to stand on the argument that he’s got the loyal base needed to keep moving.
Clinton had the cash to play all across the country, shifting her massive organization from state to state while buying ads and other necessary infrastructure. But even with her prodigious fundraising operation, she still had to rack up major debt to continue into the late stages of the campaign as party leaders pressured her to drop out and endorse Obama. Her supporters are still trying to pay off the last of it more than three years later.
Gingrich doesn’t have anywhere near her starting advantages there, and it’s unlikely he’ll get a big fundraising bump after losing in Florida and then probably losing in Nevada shortly thereafter. Gingrich needs his benefactors from the Adelson family to keep ponying up for super PAC ads and the like — if they don’t, it’s not likely he can stay close to Romney.
Clinton was able to drag things out, in part, because she could face down Obama at every caucus and primary. Gingrich isn’t even on the ballot in the state he lives in, Virginia. This means he’s almost certainly ceding a lot of delegates to Romney anyway. Gingrich has won his surges on the strength of debates and ads — but as Fernandez said, Gingrich just doesn’t seem to have the ground operation to take on Romney’s organization across the country.
Gingrich does have some advantages Clinton didn’t, namely the post-Citizens United landscape that lets his billionaire supporter Sheldon Adelson run a shadow campaign on his behalf. But there are limits to how much use that money can be without a proper infrastructure to harness it. And even Clinton, with an operation built by battle-tested Democratic strategists around the country, was caught fatally unprepared for the hardship of a long campaign.
While Obama’s 2008 campaign stole the frontrunner label from Clinton with his Iowa victory, Clinton’s deep ties to Democratic officials around the country actually left her with a major early advantage in terms of endorsements. From Ed Rendell in Pennsylvania to Debbie Wasserman Schultz in Florida, she had a legion of prominent officials she could count on to deliver her message and defend her from attacks.
The surrogate issue is coming into stark relief in the 2012 race. One thing Mitt Romney has a ton of is endorsements. And while a prominent supporters may not carry its old impact in terms of locking down a state’s voters (ahem - SC Gov. Nikki Haley), Romney’s deep bench of loyalists means he can blanket the news with statements, interviews, and press conferences. In Florida, Romney has even been dispatching some of his most popular backers — most notably Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah — to shadow Gingrich at events and rebut his speeches as they’re going on.
As the Romney-doubting conservatives begin to coalesce around Gingrich, he’s beginning to finally develop some well-known sympathizers, if not endorsers, who can offer kind words in a debate spin room or on cable news. But his recent gets sound like the starting lineup for an All-Star team of the worst national candidates in recent memory: Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Sarah Palin, and Fred Thompson. Considering how badly he’s being outspent by Romney on the airwaves, he really needs all the help he can find.
General Election Pressure
There’s a much stronger case to be made that Gingrich’s attacks on Romney are hurting the GOP’s general election chances than in the 2008 Democratic race. Republicans don’t seem to be benefiting from the same turnout surge that year, which helped Democrats register tons of new voters in battleground states around the country. And while Gingrich was already polling at radioactive levels, there’s strong evidence his attacks on Romney are rapidly bringing the governor down to his level in the short term, especially with voters outside the GOP.
Part of this is because while Obama and Clinton were largely on the same page in terms of major policy issues, Romney is being forced farther to the right every time he has to fend off a surging rival. This is starting to become a serious concern with Hispanic voters, for example, as Romney has been tacking towards the hardline anti-immigration wing of the party for months. Meanwhile, there’s evidence that Newt’s focus on Romney’s various “rich guy” problems, from Bain Capital to his tax returns, are putting a serious dent in his brand as well.
“It is interesting that the debates did not tear down then Senator Obama or Senator Clinton in the minds of independent voters,” Crawford noted, “but in their rush to the extremes the debates have hurt both Mitt and Newt.”
If Gingrich keeps up his full-throated attacks even as he slips farther away from Romney in delegate count, the backlash is likely to be severe. He weathered it in South Carolina only to come back and win, but it’s only going to get tougher as the campaign wears on.
So Gingrich may be in the campaign for the long haul. But Clinton vs. Obama, this ain’t.
Evan McMorris-Santoro reported from Florida, while Benjy Sarlin contributed from Las Vegas, Nevada.