By Paolo von Schirach
January 21, 2012
WASHINGTON – What is surprising about the decisive victory by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the South Carolina Republican primary is the speed with which public sentiment about him among Republican voters changed so dramatically and so quickly. How can it be that all opinion polls projected a comfortable Mitt Romney victory and then, just days later, Gingrich wins by a huge margin, (40% for Gingrich, only 28% for Romney)? This sudden change of sentiment can be explained only if we agree that sentiment for either leading candidate was and is not deep. unfortunately, this kind of volatility suggests voters’ superficiality and moodiness, as opposed to deep conviction based on solid reasons.
Strongly held views are not changed in just a few days
Indeed, if people polled one wekk before the vote had made up their minds on the basis of solid arguments as to who they would support, it would have taken a major political earthquake to make them change their preference. In the absence of major new facts that radically transform the picture, you do not go from 20% to 40% support in a matter of days.
My conclusion, and this invites some depressing considerations about American voters, is that people do not have deep convictions; and so they are likely to be influenced by the latest sensational development that seem to carry a lot of meaning, while it does not.
All about clever performance in TV debates
In the case of the Gingrich-Romney South Carolina duel, the “facts” that apparently caused this major shift in public sentiment are two TV debates. Gingrich did well, at least by the standards of a TV popularity contest, and Romney did poorly. And so Gingrich shot up in the polls and Romney cratered.
Obama and food stamps
But what were the issues that caused this reversal? In one occasion, Gingrich had a good populist answer to a question by Juan Williams that wanted to paint him as a racist. Whereas, by repeating the claim that Obama put millions of Americans on food stamps Gingrich portrayed the president as a hapless leader incapable of helping those in difficulty with anything more than handouts. So, instead of defending himself from the charge of racism, (most people who are on food stamps are Black), Gingrich made Obama look bad. “Obama is for handouts. I’m for pay checks”, that kind of thing. Clever. But again no discussion here about his policies that would generate economic growth and thus new employment. This is just crafty rhetoric.
Personal marital issues
Gingrich also had a clever reply to an annoying question by John King of CNN about his long divorced second wife clearly aimed at challenging his moral character. Gingrich deftly sidestepped the question by calling it “close to despicable”, while showing disbelief (Oh, My Gosh!) that a public forum aimed at discussing lofty policy issues was manipulated by the “leftwing media” to smear a conservative candidate. This violent and angry counter attack brought down the house. Gingrich got a standing ovation. And yet, what has any of this got to do with his presidential platform? You guessed it: nothing whatsoever. But the crowd cheered, because they saw an angry fighting man, exactly the kind of gladiator you want to send in the arena to deal blows to a demonized Barack Obama. Yes, these are the standards for liking presidential candidates, these days.
Romney hesitant on his tax returns
Romney instead, when challenged about his personal finances and his role as a private equity executive at Bain did not have anything clever to say. In fact he appeared defensive and uncomfortable. Bear in mind that no journalist accused Romney of anything illegal, or even improper. And yet the fact that he wants to delay releasing his tax returns invites the assumption that may be he has something to hide.
Inability to strongly defend his business record
Even worse, his hesitation in defending his professional experience as a business executive looked odd, since Romney has been claiming all along that it is this very business experience that would make him a better chief executive than Barack Obama. But again, even here nothing new. No damning anti-Romney new facts brought in the open.
In the end, no startling revelations about either Romney or Gingrich in these TV debates. It was mostly an issue of presence and delivery. Gingrich was an angry, righteous fighter. Romney was not.
Gingrich resounding victory all about TV performance
And so, in the final analysis, the 20% shift from Romney to Gingrich is not about thei substance of their plans for America; but entirely about their respective TV debates performances. And this is sad and worrisome. What this means is that in today’s America obtaining votes is all about appearance and cleverness, qualities one seeks in entertainers, and unfortunately very little about ideas and plans. Gingrich looked feisty and strong. Romney appeared hesitant and confused. But neither candidate came up with new policy positions in those two debates. Neither candidate revealed in either occasion that they had changed their mind on some fundamental issue. None of that happened. If you look at the candidates programs before and after the TV contests, they are just the same.
Republicans all alike, so the fight is about personality?
So, winning here is all about rather superficial perceptions on the part of the TV viewers about who “looks” strong or clever. One might argue that this is rather harmless. Indeed, if we look at the various Republican candidates closely, the policy differences between them are not that significant. (The exception here is Texas Congressman Ron Paul. But he is in his own world. And he came in fourth and last).
Degrading personal attacks are not harmless
So, it is no wonder that, without substantive issues on which to fight, this process turns into a personality and likeability contest. And this may very well be harmless. Except that it is not. On top of the role played by media in the debates, the intense desire to win now allows every possible low blow, every possible personal attack about the character and morality of the opponent. And so this becomes a very personal, very public and frankly very degrading shouting match with a divided public cheering one or the other.
Political process turned into low level entertainment
In the end a fickle public, as South Carolina showed, can change its allegiances in a matter of days. But, in all this, a political contest supposedly about serious plans and policies is beginning to resemble a made for TV fake wrestling match: low level entertainment; but harmless because everybody knows that it is all for show.
Except that this primary season was not supposed to be silly TV entertainment interspersed with personal animosities. This was supposed to be an integral part of a process leading to the selection of a presidential candidate. And look what we’ve got instead. Not a high note in the life of this democracy.