As Texas Gov. Rick Perry and then Herman Cain and then Newt Gingrich each rose in the GOP polls, their defenders claimed there was a gap between “establishment” opinion of each of these contenders for the presidency (initially curious and then highly negative) and the base’s embrace of them (wholehearted, affronted by mainstream criticism). Well, “The Washington elite” is out of touch, scoffed the Perry fans and next the Cain fans and now the Gingrich fans. No matter how impressive the conservative credentials of the critics or how well-founded their complaints, these voices were dismissed as those of squishy conservatives or, worse (in the eyes of the base), Mitt Romney agents seeking to beat down the opposition.
In fact, in each case the “elites” had it right, the base followed, and the aspirants crashed. The bloggers and talk show hosts who decried the attacks on their favorite upstart of the month were left scrambling to get off the train wrecks.
The conservative movement has enjoyed a populist renaissance, fueled by a Tea Party movement that correctly saw incumbents as derelict about our fiscal future and self-enriching at the expense of their constituents and the country as a whole. But the success of that movement both in shifting the national agenda to the right on fiscal matters and in bringing in a wave of new Republican lawmakers and governors did not, however, repeal two essential truisms in American politics.
The first is that information is power. In the case of candidates, the establishment conservatives had a wealth of information (about Perry’s crony capitalism, about Herman Cain’s unworkable 9-9-9 plan, about Gingrich’s public character) that the base initially did not. As that information trickled down and across the electorate, the base essentially came to agree with those “elites.” Why yes, Cain really is an ignoramus. Oh, yes, well Gingrich is a D.C. hog at the trough.
In each case the information spread, was digested (which takes some time, contrary to pundits who insist that absence of an immediate polling decline means the attacks “aren’t working”) and mulled over. As that happened, the candidates, who to one degree or another benefited from the electorate’s lack of information about them, tumbled.
In the case of Gingrich, many assumed that his background, character and track record in the House were much better known than they actually were. Once the GOP voters got a refresher course in his erratic leadership, his bizarre schemes and his ethics deficiencies, the bloom came off the rose. And fairly quickly, at that.
The other factor in American politics is that even within the Republican base, voters expect knowledge, command of the issues, verbal skill and some policy sophistication. Excuses such as “I’m not a good debater” or “I’ll hire experts to tell me what is what” don’t fly when you are talking about the presidency. Flashing the “outsider” label is not a panacea, and to the extent it is a transparent cover for “wackiness” or “ignorance” or “extremism,” voters will be wary.
The refrain that “Gingrich is more popular outside the Beltway than inside” might have been true so long as the information flow hadn’t spread throughout the electorate. (Now his poll numbers have begun to reflect the growing realization that his vices outweigh his virtues.) That conclusion might have had merit before Gingrich began mouthing Occupy Wall Street anti-capitalism rhetoric and plotting to arrest judges. But now, he’s finding, as Perry and Cain did, that voters take the presidency fairly seriously. They aren’t about to cast their vote lightly or ignore a wealth of information, no matter how loudly the talk-radio-show set screams “MSM bias!” or how vehemently some in the right blogosphere insist that these deeply flawed candidates represent the only hope for the conservative movement.