The World Series isn’t won in spring training, Super Bowls aren’t determined by summertime two-a-days and presidential nominations aren’t decided until voters actually go to the polls, starting in January.
That’s Mitt Romney’s contention – and what choice does he have, given New Gingrich’s recent surge from afterthought to leader of the pack has some wondering if the struggling Romney campaign is the Humpty Dumpty of this election?
Besides, the moment Gingrich started gloating that the prize was pretty much his for the taking, Romney was given the perfect opening to start spinning that “it ain’t not over ‘til it’s over” – or, in the Republicans’ case, it isn’t over when it hasn’t started.
History doesn’t bode well for Romney and far as next month’s Iowa caucuses are concerned. Of the five competitive Republican contests going back to 1980, only once has the December frontrunner failed to finish first (Ronald Reagan, in 1980).
But there’s yet another way to gauge the upcoming contests, as Romney is well aware: “déjà vu, all over again”.
At this time in 2007, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee had pulled out to a 6-point lead in Iowa. He finished a very distant fourth in New Hampshire to Arizona Sen. John McCain, who had finished a very distant fourth in Iowa.
Huckabee then narrowly lost to McCain in South Carolina. As January gave way to February, he was able to win in his native Dixie courtesy of a strong evangelical turnout. But in primary showdowns in Ohio and Texas, Huckabee couldn’t expand much beyond that conservative faith base. And the nomination went to McCain.
The same might be said, a few weeks from now, about 2012.
Like McCain at this point four years, Romney can’t excite conservative activists. And Gingrich, like Huckabee, is the unexpected “surge” candidate – albeit, a candidate with at least five potential “obstacles”, as explained here by The Hill newspaper.
They are (quoting verbatim):
- The Gingrich ego. Anyone who runs for president has a huge ego, but there is a perception that Gingrich’s ego is off the charts. Cartoonists are already having a field day with Gingrich’s opinion of himself.
- Immigration. This issue represented the beginning of the end of Perry’s campaign. Gingrich is well aware that in politics, how you say something is a lot more important than what you are saying.
- Baggage. Fair or not, this is a word that is associated with Gingrich’s run. Gingrich has admitted cheating on his then-wife during the impeachment of then-President Clinton. And the former Speaker's firm reportedly raked in $1.6 million from Freddie Mac, a boogeyman to the right. He was also admonished by the House Ethics Committee in 1997. News stories about his wife Callista Gingrich spending $50,000 at Tiffany’s and his campaign staffers walking out on him earlier this year were devastating to his campaign.
- Electability. Republicans nominated McCain in 2008 because they felt like he had the best chance to win. Can Gingrich win? Polls show he would be competitive against President Obama though by and large, Romney has the edge. Gingrich’s head-to-head matchups against Obama are far better than Herman Cain’s were during the peak of his run. Republicans privately say Romney and Gingrich are the only candidates who could effectively debate Obama.
- Organization and money. Romney’s advantage here cannot be overstated. At the end of September, Gingrich’s campaign was in debt while Romney had more than $14.6 million cash on hand. Without doubt, Gingrich’s fundraising has benefited since his recent surge. But he’ll never be in Romney’s league in this category.
Here’s another way to handicap the race: flipping the calendar to January 2012 and a series of votes that might go something as follows:
January 3, Iowa. With Gingrich ahead by 7 points a month before the caucuses, the field has one last shake-up courtesy of Herman Cain’s departure. The surprise beneficiary? Not Gingrich but Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who springs an upset win.
January 10, New Hampshire. Paul’s win has two consequences for the six days after Iowa: Gingrich’s second-pace finish goes largely unnoticed, as does the third-place Romney; independents horrified by Paul’s libertarian philosophy – independents making up 42% of the Live Free electorate and free to vote in the GOP primary, especially with no contest on the Democrat side – flock to Romney, making him the night’s “comeback kid” (just like Reagan, the elder Bush, Bill Clinton, McCain and Hillary Clinton).
January 21, South Carolina. Now that the score’s tied at 1-all, let’s make it even more fun . . . by making it a 1-1-1 contest. Give South Carolina to Gingrich (currently ahead in SC by 23 points, according to this poll, but only 11 points in this one), thus sending the race into further confusion and sending it further south to . . .
January 31, Florida. Gingrich has a wide lead in these polls. But the actual vote is a different animal – paid media, a strong ground game. Romney can personally attest to this, having failed to win Florida in 2008. His strategy then: paint McCain as a Washington insider; go hard to the right on illegal immigration. Sound familiar? Romney’s in California this week to raise money (here’s a chart showing how the candidates’ progress). He’ll need that money, if an all-out effort in Florida is what it takes to turn the corner on his rivals, or to simply stay in the race.
This is just speculation, mind you. Gingrich, this month’s frontrunner, could prevail in Iowa. Perhaps Romney cashes in on New Hampshire’s contrarian voting habits. Or, perhaps, that state goes a step further and puts Ron Paul in the winner’s circle (remember, Patrick Buchanan won there in 1996).
The point is: the outcome of the GOP race, a month before idle speculation gives way to hard results, is anything but etched in stone. For a frontrunner, it’s not a good environment in which to engage in gloating – or, for an ex-frontrunner to figure how to stem the tide.