In politics, the antagonist of voters’ antagonist is their hero. Newt Gingrich leads Republicans in national polls for the same reason Mitt Romney would rally Republicans in a general election: Barack Obama.
The Republican race is defined by seeming imponderables. How could a kingpin of D.C. insiders, a twice-divorced pol who led the charge against a presidential philanderer while himself philandering, take the lead in the party of Tea Party insurgents and social conservatives? And yet, how could the candidate who leaves conservatives so discouraged they’d actually back Gingrich ever unite conservatives in a general election?
Gingrich took the lead because he takes it to Obama and to a lesser degree that perennial conservative bête noir — the media. Conservatives ache for a right-wing pugilist. For now, at least, Gingrich is the candidate of the Republican id.
That id has hit Romney hard. He can no longer claim the front-runner mantle. Yet if Romney pulls it out and wins the primary, Republicans will rally behind him.
Deaniacs backed John Kerry. Hillary’s die-hards embraced Obama. And no matter what they say now, the Gingrich faddists will stand with Romney if he is the Republican standing against Obama.
Protagonists are often overestimated in politics. The liberal Netroots was credited with Democrats’ resurgence in 2006. The Tea Party movement was credited with conservatives’ comeback last year. Both midterm blowouts were fundamentally reactions to the party in power. The Tea Party possibly peaked in November 2010. Yet exit polls found even then that only 22 percent of the electorate said “one reason” for their vote was to “send a message” that’s “in favor of the Tea Party movement.” By comparison, 37 percent of voters said they were expressing “opposition” to Obama. And Obama was not even on the ballot.