Two national polls released Nov. 14 show former House Speaker Newt Gingrich jumping from the bottom to the top tier of GOP primary candidates in a little over a week, surpassing onetime favorite Herman Cain and placing him squarely with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Trouble for Romney, Cain
A CNN/ORC Poll shows 22 percent of Republicans and Independents who lean Republican support Gingrich. With a sampling error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points, this puts Gingrich at a tie with Romney. In a Public Policy Polling survey however, Gingrich pulls ahead of Romney altogether, leading with a full 10 percentage points.
The rise in support for Newt Gingrich appears to be in a direct inverse relationship to the popularity of businessman Herman Cain. Cain dropped 11 points in the PPP poll, a huge drop for the candidate since the break of POLITICO's story of alleged sexual harassment by the former National Restaurant Association CEO. He fell five points in the CNN poll, conducted between Nov. 11-13, 2011.
The polls' results could spell trouble for Romney, whose place at the top was threatened first by Texas Gov. Rick Perry and then by Cain. In both cases, Romney managed to hold onto his lead, and in five months of campaigns, the GOP candidate's support has shifted by only two percentage points. This is the first time however, that polls show Romney being outright bested, and by so many percentage points.
Behind the Rise
It's better than when I was at four [percent], Gingrich joked Nov. 14 while on the campaign trail in Iowa.
The jump is a surprise to many who left the Gingrich 2012 campaign for dead back in the spring, but commenters point to Gingrich's name recognition and strong performance in the debates as part of the reason for the GOP candidate's campaign revitalization.
He's a sharp debater, Ron Brownstein, Political Director of the Atlantic Media Company. He has been an intellectual and political force in the Republican Party in five different decades.
When we started the race, Brownstein said, we were assuming that was going to make it very difficult for him because the Republicans would be looking for a fresher face. In the end however, his stability is doing him credit.
The CNN and PPP polls support this interpretation. If the Republican race is between Romney and Gingrich, voters have them at a dead heat. They are the two most popular candidates, and the only two with favorable ratings above 50 percent of all Republicans and independents surveyed.
Over three quarters of those polled say Gingrich has the right personal qualities to be presidential, and more than seven in 10 agree with him on important issues.
It's an Anybody-but-Romney Race.
The unavoidable interpretation of Gingrich's rise in the polls however, is not that he is a strong debater or powerful presence in the GOP. It is that, like Perry and Cain before him, he is another shot at the anti-Romney.
Much like the race to replace John Kerry, though far more obvious and long-lasting, Republican voters and commenters have been dealing with the Romney problem for months, trying to find a replacement for a candidate that's steady, consistent... and pretty boring.
There is the reality that there is a big chunk of the party, the more conservative, the more evangelical side of the party, that does not want Mitt Romney and has simply not been able to settle on an alternative, Brownstein said. So Gingrich is now getting his day in the sun.
Lee M. Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, agrees. It's fair to say this is a battle for the anybody-but-Romney candidate, Miringoff told the Miami Herald. The top tier has gotten more crowded.
The question of course, is whether Gingrich can hold this lead. In the end, the former Speaker doesn't just have to prove he can beat Romney. He also has to prove he can take President Obama, something voters are far less sure about.
The key difference between Romney and Gingrich is electability, CNN Polling Director Keating Holland said.
For the first time in CNN's polling, Romney now tops Barack Obama in a head-to-head match-up among registered voters. But Gingrich faces an eight point deficit when paired with Obama in a general election matchup.
Conservative bloggers meanwhile, are already dismissing Gingrich's chances at the primary. Neil Stevens at RedState.org predicted Gingrich's fall would mirror that of Perry and Cain before him, while Janelle Bouie of the American Prospect's VoxPop blog called him a terrible choice for facing Barack Obama.
Gingrich is basking in the spotlight generated by a desperate conservative movement, Bouie wrote. Soon, they will turn their attention elsewhere.
If Gingrich is able to pull off the Republican nomination, it will be because he is the last man standing. This is the most volatile race of my lifetime, Gingrich himself told CNN. Anything could happen.