By Elvin Lim
The Republican game of musical chairs continues. One thing remains: Mitt Romney has held on to his seat as a leading contender for the nomination in the last four years.
Newt Gingrich’s rise and fall in the past month has several lessons to tell. First, no self-serving candidate would ever dare commit himself to a positive campaign again. Gingrich tried, and by refusing to counter fire with fire until recently, his poll numbers have dipped under a relentless barrage of negative ads coming from the Perry campaign and the Romney superPAC. What was particularly foolhardy about Gingrich’s pledge to remain positive is that the anti-Romney vote had shifted to him precisely because he had the fire in the belly that conservatives felt was missing in Romney. Second, this is only the most recent proof that negative ads work. Of course, what is bad for the candidate is even worse for the country. But in the heat of the campaign, no one cares. And the heat is on for 2012. Third, Gingrich’s failure to get on the Virginia ballot tells a cautionary tale to any candidate who tries to play a national strategy when elections in this country are won by an organized war on the ground, state by state. Gingrich’s failure to get his organizational act together only reinforced the narrative that he was erratic and not up to the grueling task of a long campaign.
As Gingrich supporters in Iowa return to the Romney camp, others have gone to Rick Santorum and especially to Ron Paul. This should not be surprising. Ron Paul is the original article, a Tea Partier before the (modern) Tea Party who has spent the better part of his life advocating his libertarian, small government philosophy. Between Paul and Santorum, Paul is likely to finish nearer to the top because 2012 will be about the economy, not culture. What the Republicans want more than anything else (other than to defeat Obama) is to overturn Obamacare, not protect human life or restore DADT in the military. Cultural issues, in any case, are not going to be salient in a primary race where everyone already agrees on them. This is one reason why all the ads Rick Perry are putting out touting his Christian faith are gaining so little traction. (They will be enough, however, to split the socially conservative vote between him, Michele Bachmann and Santorum so a Huckabee-like surprise victory as in 2004 is not likely.)
As a sign of his newfound confidence, Mitt Romney’s closing argument in Davenport, Iowa, as the campaigns wind down for the New Year just days before the Iowa caucuses was focussed entirely on Joe Biden and Obama, not any of his rivals who are struggling for political relevance. Having survived the Bachmann, Perry, Cain, and Gingrich insurgencies, Romney has proven his mettle to many who had doubted him before that he can take on Barack Obama. And that – a competent candidate – is what Republican primary voters are ultimately looking for.
Elvin Lim is Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears here each week.