Newt Gingrich acknowledged Sunday that his refusal to respond to a barrage of attack ads has hurt him badly.
“I probably should have responded faster and more aggressively,” he said, according to reports.
And assuming he doesn’t win the GOP nomination, this will be the prevailing obituary for his campaign: that he didn’t fight back and he wouldn’t go negative when it counted.
But it’s only part of the story.
When it comes to Gingrich, his problem wasn’t simply that he wouldn’t get down and dirty with his opponents; it was also that there was so much opposition research to mine in his record and that, even if he had the right message, he didn’t have the money to get it out there.
In other words: Although message certainly played a role, history and money had a lot to do with it, too.
The main reason Gingrich has suffered is that there was simply so much material for his opponents to work with.
Nothing makes an attack quite so potent as if it is substantiated. And the former House speaker’s track record is so well documented that it became hard for him to fight back. Indeed, when it came to his support for climate change legislation and the individual health insurance mandate, he couldn’t really fight back at all because it was so clear where he stood. There was video evidence — several videos, in fact.
Republicans might not like Mitt Romney ’s health-care bill, but he didn’t appear in TV ads or go on speaking tours promoting it, as Gingrich did with climate change and the individual mandate.
Secondly, Gingrich was just so badly outspent that any effort to fight back against the charges or launch counter-attacks would have been drowned out.
It’s one thing to have the right message; it’s another to be able to get it out. True, Gingrich got plenty of media coverage and could have gotten his message out that way. But there are few better ways to hone a message than a TV ad, and Gingrich quite simply couldn’t afford very many of them.
The confluence of those circumstances caused Gingrich to plummet in the polls. The Des Moines Register poll this weekend showed the number of people who said Gingrich was their least favorite candidate rising from 6 percent last month to 23 percent now — a rather stunning fall from grace. And that fall had a lot to do with all three factors mentioned above: message, history and money.
The reason that Gingrich’s message has gotten so much more attention, of course, is because that’s the one he had full control over.
Although his past is his past and he can only raise as much money as people will give him, he had 100 percent control over what kind of message he put out. And most agree it has been the wrong message.
Gingrich made a cottage industry of decrying negative ads and the consultant-driven politics of today’s presidential elections. And that’s a big reason he got back into contention.
But it’s also not a permanent strategy. And Gingrich didn’t have a great Phase 2.
Like Tim Pawlenty before him (think “Obamneycare”), Gingrich had his moment to shift tactics, and he chose the wrong path.
“The truth is where all the candidates that have flamed out and gone wrong is message,” said GOP consultant Dan Hazelwood. “They fought for attention and when they got it, they mustered the pathetic ‘I’m the anti-Romney conservative’ [theme].”
And indeed, it seems that Gingrich is starting to acknowledge his folly, saying his response has been insufficient.
“If somebody spent $3.5 million lying about you, you have some obligation to come back and set the record straight,” he said Sunday.
Then Gingrich suggested he was ready to start opening fire on Romney.
“I think New Hampshire is the perfect state to have a debate over Romneycare and to have a debate about tax-paid abortions, which he signed, and to have a debate about putting Planned Parenthood on a government board, which he signed, and to have a debate about appointing liberal judges, which he did,” Gingrich said.
It’s hard to see Gingrich’s comments Sunday as anything less than an acknowledgment that his refusal to engage Romney was a mistake.
Even harder is seeing how going negative now is going to help a candidate whose personal baggage and lack of funds will continue to make it very difficult for him to rally.
No matter how successful a message he can muster.