All you really need to know about Saturday night’s big Republican debate in Des Moines is that when it started, Mitt Romney was + 14 on Intrade. By mid-afternoon Sunday, he’d plummeted to just +3.
A few minutes before ABC’s obviously stoned Diane Sawyer asked the six candidates her first question, a check of Intrade, the famed wisdom of crowds online prediction market, showed the probability of Mittens winning the GOP nomination listed as 47.2% to 33.6% for Newt Gingrich.
By the time the two-hour deal went down, the site’s real time futures betting had shrunk his lead to 45.6-to-35.8% over Gingrich, a downward trend that dragged him further, to 41.1-to-38.4% by the time the late NFL games kicked off.
So much for inevitability.
By now, everyone who didn’t get drunk and sleep through the weekend has seen the endless replays of Mitt’s multiple humiliations in the City of Skywalks: the Ted Kennedy bitch slap Gingrich delivered in response to his phony claim that he’s not a politician; the hideous, high-pitched chuckle that emitted from his pie hole when George Stephanopoulos asked if Newt was actually more electable; the moment of madness that seized the brain cells lurking beneath his oleaginous locks and made him think it was a swell idea to offer to bet a thoroughly baffled Rick Perry 10 Large about the words in his own book.
Conned by Ranger Rick: Contemplate that for a moment.
Where we are now: With this week’s Fox debate the only event left before the holidays freeze the race in place in advance of the January 3 caucuses, it’s hard to imagine that any conceivable number of TV ads will give Mittens enough juice to keep the Grinch from opening a can of wupass in Iowa, then blowing into New Hampshire with enough Big Mo to make Romney actually have to compete for a state that was supposed to be a walkover for him.
Then it’s on to South Carolina and Florida, where Gingrich currently holds big leads, all of which suggests that Romney, at best, is looking at months of tough slog delegate battles against the corpulent and crafty ex-Speaker (GOP rule changes have made contests in many states proportional rather than winner-take-all, increasing the chances of an extended primary season). None of which is to mention the potential for ongoing mischief posed by Ron Paul, the twinkling, impish libertarian who just won’t go away,
Hey, who knows, maybe this all could mean California might matter in the Republican nominating campaign after all, as our good friend Sherry Bebitch Jeffe has argued most recently, and we ourselves suggested a while back:
But it’s not inconceivable that by June 5, 2012, the Republican presidential nomination could still be in doubt. If the GOP nomination is still undecided, California’s estimated 172 delegates — the bulk of them awarded winner-take-all in congressional districts – would represent about 15% of the total needed to secure the nomination.
In any case, the way that Romney’s campaign swiftly went from sure thing to subject of what-went-wrong tick tocks affirms anew the two most unshakeable rules of politics: 1) Nobody knows anything; 2) The conventional wisdom is always wrong.
That aside, there are three basic factors that help explain how Gingrich reshaped the race in a breathtakingly short time.
Debates mattered, for once. Not since Big Dick Nixon lathered on the LazyShave in his first 1960 set-to with JFK have candidate debates seemed so important to a campaign.
Oh sure, there are iconic moments from certain events – “there you go again,” “where’s the beef?” Bush I checking his watch while Clinton droned on in 1992 – but rarely if ever have debates so fully defined and driven a race.
Saturday night’s affair was at least the 17th of the Republican contest and, having covered scores and scores of these things, Calbuzz can testify that not many change a campaign narrative in a major way. But this turned into a full-season, full-blown reality TV series, with a cast of colorful characters that kept millions tuning in week after week: Would Herman finally put the moves on Michele? Would Huntsman light his hair on fire just for laughs? Would Rick Perry pee in his shoe?
All of which aligned perfectly with Gingrich’s circumstances and skill set; the guy didn’t have the money to slug it with TV ads, and he certainly lacks the charm or warmth to do retail effectively, but showing up week after week to blowhard and foghorn it while one rival after another committed seppuku suited him just fine. As starboard ink-slinger Fred Barnes laments:
It adds up to this: Republican candidates and their minions have devoted the past six months to preparing for debates, debating, then talking about how the debates went. The president has concentrated on fleshing out a self-serving narrative for his reelection and now is trying to impose it on the campaign. Whose time was spent more productively?
Besides aiding Obama, Republicans have hurt themselves in numerous ways by letting the debates be the organizing events of the campaign. The stronger candidates have been diminished by appearing, debate after debate, on equal footing with also-rans whose chances of winning the party’s presidential nomination are nil.
With debates so frequent, peripheral candidates have no incentive to drop out. Fundraising, building an organization, developing policy papers—these aren’t needed to qualify for debates. The willingness to show up is sufficient. For also-rans, availability is their strong suit.
The Tea Party wants a bomb thrower. The most important exchange of Saturday’s debate was the Gingrich-Romney clash over Newt’s incendiary comments about the Palestinians being an “invented people.” Said Our Mitt:
If I’m president of the United States, I will exercise sobriety, care, stability, and make sure that in a setting like this, anything I say that can affect a place with rockets going in, with people dying, I don’t do anything that will harm that process…I’m not a bomb-thrower, rhetorically or literally.
Having already torpedoed 40 years of American peacekeeping efforts in the Mideast, Gingrich won the hall by indulging his Ronald Reagan self-delusions and doubling down on his own bombast against the Romney challenge that he is too irresponsible and too dangerous to be president:
Reagan believed the power of truth, restated to the world, reframed the world. I’m a Reaganite. I’m proud to be a Reaganite. I will tell the truth, even if it’s at the risk of causing some confusion, sometimes with the timid.
News flash to Mitt: The Tea Party isn’t actually looking for, um, sobriety, care or stability.
Beyond the familiar issues that outrage Tea Party Republicans about the Democratic president – Obamacare, Keynesian economics, deficit spending – lies a more primal and passionate antagonism, which has far less to do with policy differences and far more to do with culture – a visceral antipathy to all the bicoastal, elitist, Chablis-sipping, latte-swilling, Whole Foods-shopping, Volvo-driving, gay-rights advancing, multicultural Planned Parenthood diversity he embodies.
From this perspective, it’s bad enough that Romney is a perennial flip-flopper who parses words more punctiliously than Bill Clinton and who practices a religion many evangelical Christians consider a cult. He’s also a wealthy and entitled rich man’s son, who hails from the homeland of the late Ted Kennedy and who, when he had the chance, sponsored his own infernal, Obama-like universal health care plan.
Compare to this to Gingrich who, regardless of his serial adulteries, multiple marriages, endless re-inventions and shady ethical record, is first and last a red-faced choleric movement conservative with a zest for bombast and invective (what other national leader would say, as Newt did, “people like me are what stand between us and Auschwitz”?), who won’t shy from assailing Obama as a “socialist” and will do his best to tear the presidents face off. As Jonathan Chait wrote in New York magazine:
It is not that Republicans won’t vote for Romney. It’s that Romney does not capture their fundamental attitude toward Obama.
Electability schmecktability. In going along with the Republican debate game, Romney’s play was to keep it low key, sound articulate and smart and come across as just conservatively correct enough so that when the members of the cuckoo caucus predictably fell one by one, there would be old reliable, smiling Mitt and his bright sheen of inevitability.
The problem was, he seems never to have seen Gingrich coming. And now that Newt has ripped away his mantle of inevitability, there doesn’t seem to be all that much else there.