READING the coverage of the South Carolina primary, it seems that a lot of people were alarmed by Newt Gingrich's huge victory over Mitt Romney. There is a widespread feeling that Gingrich has, as Alistair Bell puts it, stolen Romney's "cloak of electability". That has always been one of the central premises of the latter's candidacy. Even if he hasn't quite clicked with Republican voters, the thinking goes, he's the best placed to beat Barack Obama, partly because his perceived moderation would play better in the general election than it does in the primaries. Polling suggests that Romney would fare much better against Obama than Gingrich would, if the election were held today. But if Romney can't even beat Gingrich—a deeply flawed candidate, according to most accounts—then it doesn't inspire a lot of confidence in his ability to win the presidency. If Gingrich goes on to win Florida, John Heileman argues, the "Republican Establishment is going to have a meltdown that makes Three Mile Island look like a marshmallow roast."

Distress is a logical response for the Republican Party as an organisation. But the rest of us should be more sanguine. Last summer and last fall, independents and Democrats were incredulous at the idea that Republican voters might nominate Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, or Rick Perry. Each of those candidates had their moment of popularity, which isn't surprising, given that Republicans have different preferences than Democrats. And all three were summarily dismissed when their liabilities were deemed to outweigh their appeal. Similarly, it's not surprising that Mr Gingrich clobbered Mr Romney in South Carolina. As many people have noted, Mr Romney had been flailing hard for the previous two weeks. Mr Gingrich, meanwhile, killed it in a couple of key debates, and projected unflappability in the face of personal attacks from his second ex-wife. Regardless of what you think of the field, it's fair to say that the four remaining candidates--Romney, Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul--are the ones who have campaigned most effectively or, at least, haven't hit the self-destruct button.

That being the case, I don't see why we should be appalled that many Republican voters are now supporting Gingrich, even if their decision-making process is a nuisance to the party. Last summer, when people were fretting about whether Sarah Palin would run, I asked why pundits have so little confidence in voters: even if she ran for president, she wouldn't get very far unless she could prove herself to be a credible candidate. And whether someone is "credible" is up to the voters rather than the analysts, but as it happens, the judgment of the voters is often not that far off from our wise commentary. Even Republican voters have repeatedly made tolerable decisions; four years ago, for example, they nominated John McCain. So if they're currently doing something that strikes observers as antisocial--that is, supporting Gingrich--it's worth trying to figure out what we're failing to comprehend, using the principle of charity if necessary.

There's no risk to such a thought experiment. I would say that Gingrich won the South Carolina contest because he campaigned more effectively there than the stumbling Romney. And Gingrich can't make a case for himself going forward, then he's unlikely to win the nomination, much less the election. And if he does go on to win the nomination, then it would be a sign that Gingrich has assumed or asserted credibility. That doesn't mean he would be a competiitve general election candidate--I suspect he wouldn't be--but neither would it mean that millions of voters have gone over the edge.

01/24/2012 21:21

That sounds right. My concern is more if one of our parties no longer comports in a neighborly fashion with its neighbors then we're heading for a period of single party rule.

But I'm heartened that all the candidates seem to be moving toward the center early in the nominating contest, particularly around immigration. I'm hopeful this is a sign that their private pollsters are finding a large number of reasonable voters still in the GOP.


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