Is Romney Firing At The Wrong Target?

Two new polls of Iowa out today show Gingrich collapsing. The Real Clear Politics rolling average for Iowa now looks like this (rounded off): Paul 22; Romney 20; Gingrich 16; Perry 12; Bachmann 10; Santorum 6; Huntsman 4.

I've been arguing all year that Iowa evangelical conservatives hold a major key to the GOP nomination. My argument, in brief, is that those evangelicals (roughly half the caucus voters) will either A) consolidate largely around a candidate unacceptable to other institutional Republicans; B) not consolidate around anyone, and split their votes many ways; or C) consolidate largely around a candidate who is acceptable to other institutional Republicans.

Scenarios A & B most likely lead to a Romney nomination. Scenario C is trouble for him -- which is why his campaign was worried about stopping Pawlenty and then Perry from gaining any momentum. 

After Gingrich surged to the lead in polls, the Romney team got spooked, and decided they needed to stop him, too. I think that was a huge mistake.

But here's the thing: I think it was a mistake, because I happen to personally believe that Newt Gingrich is not actually running for President.

What I mean is that I believe Gingrich has no desire, intention, or expectation of becoming President. Not just that he got into the race hoping to boost his brand whether or not he won, but that he actively wants to not be President -- which would, after all, require him for at least the next four years to work very hard, which is something he clearly doesn't care for.

Now, I want to be clear that I'm not basing this belief on any reporting, or special information. It's not much more than a guess.

So I can understand why the Romney campaign got worried. Gingrich would be theoretically tough for Romney to beat one-on-one in a delegate-counting "long seige" that they've prepped for; in addition to sweeping the South and heavily evangelical heartland states, which anyone would do against Romney, Gingrich would (in theory) do reasonably well elsewhere, which, thanks to proportional allotment, would make it hard for Romney to make up the ground. 

But if I'm right, there was no reason to worry about Gingrich. I would suggest that if I'm right that Gingrich doesn't want to be President, he certainly would want to avoid becoming the nominee. As nominee, he would have to spend many months working very hard on a plausibly real campaign -- and even so would probably be blamed for causing another four years of Obama, crushing his value in the conservative marketplace.

I think Gingrich is doing exactly what makes sense for him to do, if he's trying to avoid winning while maintaining his conservative marketability. Two things, actually.

One thing he would do is say unnecessarily crazy things that conservative voters find appealing, but recognize as signs of unelectability. Things like, oh I don't know, that we should arrest liberal activist judges. That would maybe make them think twice about voting for such an out-of-the-mainstream firebrand, but wanting to see his next speech or buy his next book.

The second thing would be to ensure that he gets outspent a zillion-to-one in Iowa. This not only helps him lose, but provides him with a good excuse for losing -- you may have noticed that he started shopping this excuse today, to explain his decline in the polls. Getting outspent is something he's been working on for quite some time. He has avoided doing anything that might cause truly substantial amounts of donations to come into his campaign, beyond a few million to pay off the private jet bills and other costs. I mean honestly, if Gingrich was actually trying to win the nomination, wouldn't he have done a "money bomb" at the peak of his surge, which probably would have brought in at least $5 million and more likely $10 million or more? Plus, Gingrich spoke up against anyone spending large sums on a SuperPAC in his behalf. Reportedly Sheldon Adelson (native of Dorchester) was ready to throw in $20 million, but apparently Gingrich prefers to go quietly toward single digits.

In any event, Gingrich's Iowa numbers are in freefall, and, since he's done absolutely no organizing in Iowa, he'll likely underperform the polling.

Meanwhile, notice that Rick Perry is creeping up. That may be statistical noise. But it might be Perry surging at the right time.

Going back to my three scenarios for Iowa evangelical conservatives, the snapshot suggests that there is no consolidation. I don't have Iowa poll crosstabs by evangelical identification, but I'd guess that six candidates are each getting at least 10% of their vote right now -- and that no single candidate is getting more than about 20 or 25%.

But that could easily change. If these two polls today are not statistical blips, then by the end of this week we'll be flooded with "comeback kid?" stories about Perry's Iowa surge. Iowans gathering for the holidays could begin seeing a three-way race among Romney, Paul, and Perry. That's exactly where Perry wants people to be as they make their decision in the final week.

And that's in large part thanks to Romney and his people (and SuperPAC); if they had laid off Gingrich, he'd still be dropping -- he's getting hit by other candidates and the media -- but not nearly as fast. And that's the difference that could have Perry generating comeback headlines before Christmas.

Now, as I suggested above, I do think Perry has a slight disadvantage in a "long siege" battle with Romney, compared to Gingrich or Pawlenty. It's mostly his drawl. I'm sorry, but it's true. Perry speaks Southern, which is useful in the South, and he speaks evangelical, which is useful in Iowa and Kansas. But those languages don't play so well in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota, where the non-Romney needs to do pretty well, assuming Romney takes the Northeast and the West. (Gingrich, though he has lived in the South his whole adult life, was born in Pennsylvania and doesn't sound Southern to non-Southerners.)

So maybe that's why Romney and his team are going so hard after Gingrich (and continues to do so, as he did on O'Reilly tonight), at the risk of helping Perry back in the race. But they were certainly a lot more worried about Perry before.

I still think Romney's the likely nominee -- probably at least 75% chance, if not more -- but ever since Pawlenty dropped out I've believed that Perry was the only Republican who could beat him. I wonder whether Romney has now made the same mistake with Perry that he made four years ago with McCain: mistaking him for dead.

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