Pawlenty and Gingrich: Polls Apart

Politicos and pundits are searching desperately for the Republican "front-runner." Why their analyses fall short.

Remember Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor who entered the Republican race for his party’s presidential nomination and then exited before the race had really begun? By his lights, he wasn’t generating any support and so bailed out before he brought to himself any further embarrassment. The crowning blow came after he was widely criticized for his ungentlemanly attacks, during one debate, against U.S. representative Michele Bachmann of Pawlenty’s own state. He hoped it would give him a boost in the polls, but it didn’t work.

In light of what happened in the race following his departure, Pawlenty’s decision would seem to have been premature. What happened was that Bachmann promptly faded in the polls, while Texas governor Rick Perry, upon entering the fray, enjoyed a burst of support. Then he, in turn, faltered (again, based on polls), while businessman Herman Cain surged from nowhere to throw some excitement and novelty into the campaign. Then just as quickly he imploded, and former House speaker Newt Gingrich became the next surge candidate.

Given these successive surges, it would seem that Pawlenty failed not to mount a credible campaign but to understand the nature of the early phase of the contest. After all, who can argue that he himself wouldn’t have enjoyed his own surge in the polls, however fleeting, had he stayed in and hammered away with his message? No, his problem was that he thought he was in an actual race and that he could assess the relative standing of the candidates through the polls.

But there was no race. In horse-race parlance (which so many pundits and political pros habitually succumb to), this part of the contest is akin to activities in the paddock, when the horses are being saddled up and paraded before onlookers interested in getting a glimpse before the tumult of the actual race. No one considers that ritual to carry weight as to who is the front-runner before the horses actually make it to the starting gate. Yet in presidential campaigns there is all manner of talk about who occupies the front-runner spot—months before any voter anywhere has cast a ballot.

It seems safe to suggest that Pawlenty’s attack on Bachmann stemmed from this fallacy. He thought her poll numbers represented her standing relative to his own. And, since she was wooing voters he needed, he seems to have calculated that he had to bring her down a few notches in order to overtake her in the race and position himself to be taken seriously. And certainly this was how many political pundits framed Pawlenty’s political imperative at the time.

Now compare this with the approach of Gingrich, who ignored the polls and his standing vis-à-vis his rivals and concentrated on his performance in the debates. The book on Gingrich is that he is strategically brilliant, tactically erratic, and given to inevitable lapses in discipline and judgment (as, for example, his incendiary and revealing suggestion the other day that Palestinians are an “invented” people). His campaign approach reflected his strategic brilliance in this equation.

It seems safe to assume Gingrich scoped out the single most important innovation in this cycle’s early campaign process—the multiple debates sponsored largely by various news organizations beginning long before any votes would be counted. So far this year there have been twelve such debates, and most political pros and journalists have watched closely to see how the poll numbers changed following each of them. Pawlenty did too—and apparently concluded those poll numbers were definitive.

But Gingrich ignored those polls. He steadfastly declined to follow the Pawlenty example and attack his opponents. Instead, he presented himself as a man with robust ideas and strong convictions dedicated to polite discourse during the nomination competition and the defeat of President Barack Obama in the general election. And by ignoring the polls, he rose to the top of them.

There’s a lesson here, and it’s tied to the nature of American democratic politics. The horse-race analysis inevitably focuses on campaign minutia—verbal gaffs, fundraising disparities, endorsements, the thrust and parry of the debates and, yes, those polls. Often this kind of analysis ignores the conversation that’s taking place between candidates and the electorate and the slow, inexorable standing that candidates gain or fail to gain as they put forth rhetoric that, over time, either resonates with voters or doesn’t. This process precedes poll numbers because it emerges slowly, below the level of political consciousness measured by the polls.

But that’s the process, and not poll numbers, that the journalists and party pros and candidates should be assessing at this phase in the contest. Does this mean that Gingrich is now the “front-runner,” given his poll standing? No, because the process of the voter collective in multiple early states is ongoing, and much of it can’t yet be captured by the polls. But it does suggest that Newt Gingrich’s story reflects the true nature of our political process, as does Tim Pawlenty’s.

Robert W. Merry is editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy.

Image: Marc Nozell