A poll released today by Public Policy Polling shows former House Speaker Newt Gingrich capping off an amazing month’s rise by taking the lead in the GOP nomination race. Many commentators have focused on the unforced errors and attacks that have brought other conservative candidates down. But just because one person falls doesn’t mean another one has to rise. The reason Gingrich is coming back is because he, alone of all the conservative challengers, is hitting the GOP’s sweet spot—conservative principles plus practical prudence.
As I explain in my article on the GOP primary electorate, A GOP Dark Horse?, Republican voters are not divided in two between conservatives and non-conservatives, Tea Partiers and others, or college-educated and non-college grads. Instead, they are, like Caesar’s Gaul, divided in three: moderates and liberals; very conservatives; and somewhat conservatives. The first group prefers non-conservatives and the second highly ideological and rhetorically grandiose conservatives. The third group is actually the largest of the three, and they prefer a candidate who is conservative enough on the issues but also has stability, maturity, and gravitas. This group embodies both senses of the word “conservative” in that their head is in line with the modern American conservative movement, but their heart inclines to caution and temperamental Burkeanism.
Newt is soaring because in the debates he has cast himself as the candidate who shares these somewhat conservative values. He’s come out as strongly conservative in ideas, but also as the most knowledgeable and experienced of the candidates not named Mitt. Tea Partiers like the principles, somewhat conservatives like the whole package.
The PPP poll is one of the few regular polls that divides conservatives along the very and somewhat lines, and those crosstabs bear out this analysis. Gingrich leads among very conservative voters with 31 percent, followed closely by Herman Cain at 29 percent and Mitt Romney at 15 percent. These voters are 36 percent of the sample, only slightly larger than in 2008. Among the 39 percent of voters who are somewhat conservative, Gingrich leads with 31 percent to Cain’s 25 percent and Romney’s 20 percent.
If Gingrich is going to fall, it will happen because of one of two reasons. Either somewhat conservative voters will decide that Romney is conservative enough, or they will decide that Gingrich doesn’t have the temperament to be president (or some combination of the two). After the initial attacks on Gingrich’s marriages and lobbying connections (“Newt, Inc.”) don’t work, watch for other candidates and the press to start to bait Gingrich to tempt his dark side to emerge.