Mean and extreme

I admit it: I underestimated Newt Gingrich, who has established himself as the Freddy Krueger of politics, repeatedly left for dead but always able to resurrect himself (at least, so far). 

His stunning South Carolina victory reflects a total failure of Mitt Romney’s campaign, as well as Newt’s own prodigious talents. How did Romney fail? Let me count the ways. 


First and foremost, he failed to make his central argument stick. Yes, the economy was the most important issue to by far the largest number of voters — 63 percent. Yet, though Romney worked to make his business acumen the centerpiece of his appeal, he lost economy voters to Gingrich by 8 points. Electability was another pillar of his message, and it was more important to South Carolina primary voters than any other quality. Yet Romney lost electability voters to Gingrich by 14 points. Romney contrasted his career in business with Gingrich’s in politics, suggesting he is better prepared for the White House. That proved less important than electability but still ranked second on voters’ list. Romney managed to lose experience voters by 15 points. And while Romney has not embraced the moderate label, his ideological positioning certainly contrasts with Gingrich’s. However, Romney only won moderate/liberal GOPers by 3 points. (There is some justice in the world, as Gingrich lost voters who cast their ballot based on moral character, but Romney didn’t win them.)

Of course, it wasn’t all Romney’s fault. Gingrich helped himself in South Carolina. Nearly two-thirds characterized the debates as an important factor in their voting decision, and Gingrich won them by decisive double-digit margins. With 55 percent making their final decision in the few days leading up to the primary, there was plenty of time for the debate performances to have an impact, and late deciders broke 2-to-1 for Gingrich. Moreover, while pundits poor-mouth Gingrich’s organization, as HuffPost pollster’ Mark Blumenthal discovered, South Carolina’s local political leaders, unlike those elsewhere, favored Gingrich, also by 2-to-1.

Irrespective of any attributions of responsibility, though, Romney’s campaign suffered a total collapse, and one with consequences. There is plenty of time for things to change yet again, but Romney’s abject failure in South Carolina is already reverberating in the Florida and national polls, where Gingrich is, all of a sudden, at least tied (for now). Victory in Florida would give Gingrich a real chance at the nomination, the horror of the Republican establishment notwithstanding. 

Beneath the surface dynamics, though, this turn in the GOP process highlights something deeper that will continue to reverberate in November. GOP voters seem increasingly committed to both mean and extreme. It’s amazing, but Republicans are making “moderate” a dirty word in their limited circles. In Newt Gingrich’s lexicon, a “Massachusetts moderate” seems barely less contemptible than a “San Francisco liberal” or a “European socialist” — and however we might react to those words, for Republicans they are about as foul as one can get in debates broadcast during family viewing hours.

The “we-hate-moderates” positioning sells well in Republican primaries, but in 2010, moderates, together with liberals, made up 58 percent of the November electorate, and in the last presidential year, that segment comprised 66 percent of the voters. Most of this majority does not appreciate being formally flipped off by the GOP. 

Gingrich is not just extreme, he is also downright mean. Nasty rants directed at the president or the media apparently elicit warm and fuzzy feelings from Republicans. One South Carolina Gingrich voter candidly confided to The Washington Post, “I think we’ve reached a point where we need someone who’s mean.” Many others apparently agreed. Romney, ever the imitator, is now copying Newt.

Mean and extreme may triumph in the Republican nominating process, but it’s unlikely to work in November. 

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the Majority Leader of the Senate and the Democratic Whip in the House.