Are We Experiencing Peak Gingrich?

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It’s a mistake to put too much credence in national polls, outliers yada yada yada, but this is impossible to ignore: Newt Gingrich is absolutely crushing it in recent state surveys and a new national poll. He’s sporting the support of nearly half of all the Republican voters in Florida according to Public Policy Polling, American Research Group and Insider Advantage, and he’s whoopin’ Romney 38% to 17% nationwide in Rasmussen’s latest. Can it last, or will he fade as Perry and Cain did before him? There a few reasons to think it will, at least for long enough to realign the race in a way that the temporary surges of other candidates did not.

One reason is just timing: The paid media phase of the campaign has begun in earnest and the Iowa caucuses are a month away, so Newt’s rise isn’t going to have to stand a major test of time to have nomination-changing implications. Relatedly, Mitt Romey’s begun to invest in Iowa and needs to worry about competition there a bit more; he can no longer claim it was contest he didn’t try to win. The influential Iowa evangelical group Family Leader ruled out endorsing Romney recently, but despite his divorces, Gingrich is still on their possible list and its head, Bob Vander Plaats is rumored to be taking a serious look at the former Speaker.

Another factor working in Gingrich’s favor is the outsize role debates have played in the primary this cycle. While Rick Perry and Herman Cain were damaged by a run of poor performances, Newt’s put on a great show. His media criticism schtick strikes a chord with many conservatives and his penchant for intellectualese, while some find it grating, is evidence to many Republicans that Gingrich could more than hold his own against Obama. While he does have a history of blowing off course with bluster, Romney can’t absolutely bank on Newt scuttling himself (as he did with Cain and Perry) in the main public forums between now and January.

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Gingrich is also a known quantity: While Perry and Cain’s heresies came as a surprise to many conservatives, Newt’s been around the block. They’ve seen him on the couch with Pelosi. There’s little shock value.  And the conservative media hasn’t really beaten up on Gingrich just yet. Part of that might have to do with reservations about Romney and the ever-dwindling list of alternatives. But he’s speaking their language. Seeing him air long-held grievances against the mainstream media was surely gratifying.

Based on the below chart from Real Clear Politics, Gingrich is just now passing the height of Cain’s peak and quickly speeding toward Perry’s. (“I’m going to be the nominee,” the further emboldened candidate says.) There are still plenty of questions about Gingrich’s organizational and financial lasting power, but it seems entirely plausible that the summit of his popularity is yet to come.

Of course, that won’t happen unopposed. Team Romney surely recognizes the danger and will likely go negative against him hard with paid media. It may be a tough storm for Gingrich to weather with no major warchest or Super PAC to even things out. And Romney is built for a long drawn-out primary campaign, so this extended surge by no means hands him the nomination. But it’s eye-popping nonetheless.