“Over the past few weeks we’ve seen a frontal assault on free enterprise. We expected this from President Obama. We didn’t anticipate some Republicans would join him. That’s a mistake for our party, and for our nation…. Those who pick up the weapons of the left today will find them turned against us tomorrow.”
– Mitt Romney
in his concession speech
in South Carolina Saturday
Newt Gingrich’s impressive 12-point victory margin in South Carolina has touched off enormous doubt among national Republicans, much of it centered on Mitt Romney’s perceived weaknesses as a candidate.
To cite just one example of many, here’s Mark Steyn at NationalReview.com:
“Even if you don’t mind Romneycare, or the abortion flip-flop, or any of the rest, there’s a more basic problem: He’s not a natural campaigner, and on the stump he instinctively recoils from any personal connection with the voters…. For a guy running as a chief exec applying proven private-sector solutions, his campaign looks awfully like an unreformable government bureaucracy: big, bloated, overstaffed, burning money, slow to react, and all but impossible to change.”
While there’s certainly some truth to that, I think the Republican problem is much more deep-seated than the failings of a particular candidate. Newt Gingrich not only exposed Romney as a flawed politician; he exposed the fact that their economic message sucks.
Look at what happened: In a Republican primary in a deeply conservative state, Gingrich rode to victory by employing the Democratic line of attack against Mitt. What does that tell you about the power of that critique in the general election, among a much less conservative electorate?
(UPDATE at 11:50: Two new polls out of Florida:
Insider Advantage puts Gingrich up 34-26.
Rasmussen has Gingrich up 41-32.)
It’s really quite stunning, in ways that a lot of people don’t yet comprehend.
It’s true, of course, that the economy was just one of many factors that affected the outcome in South Carolina. For example, Gingrich outperformed Romney by 2-1 among evangelical voters, and given Newt’s personal history, that’s amazing. Romney’s religion had to have played a role in that kind of outcome.
However, when you sift through the exit-poll numbers on the economy, what you find is really compelling:
Seventy-nine percent of South Carolina voters told exit pollers that they were very worried about the nation’s economy; Gingrich carried that group by 14 percentage points.
Among the 11 percent of voters who said their own economic situation was improving, Romney did well, finishing in a virtual tie with Gingrich. But Romney and his message fell flat among those who said their economic status was static (Gingrich up 14 points) or slipping (Gingrich by 19 points).
Among income groups, Romney was competitive only among those said they made $100,000 or more, losing that demographic by only five percentage points. He lost by 15 points among everybody else.
Again, these are conservative voters in a conservative state, in an election cycle in which the economy will be the defining issue. And yet they clearly sided with a candidate who conducted “a frontal assault on free enterprise,” to use Romney’s description.
For the moment, Romney’s solution is to do as he did in his concession speech: whine about the treachery of a fellow Republican daring to advance a liberal critique. Within the confines of a GOP primary, that approach may have some temporary success.
But again, in a general election that’s not going to work.
Two more points: One, as Gingrich clearly recognizes, Romney’s personal history, his bearing and his personality all make him the perfect foil for a populist message. He epitomizes the Wall Street tycoon often central to that narrative, and it’s a weakness for which there is no cure.
Two, the lessons of South Carolina may have real consequences for House and Senate races as well. If the overall GOP message truly is as weak as it appears after Saturday — if it can be turned into a handicap even in a Republican primary — then Democratic prospects downticket may be brighter than they have seemed.
– Jay Bookman