A recent poll by Rasmussen Reports showed Newt Gingrich leading the Republican field with 38 percent of the vote, twenty-one points ahead of his nearest challenger. Many of us on the left side of American politics have been stunned to witness the political comeback of Gingrich, the cantankerous conservative who battled Bill and Hillary Clinton in the 1990s.
On the surface, he would seem an unlikely choice for a major political party. He is a candidate who talks often of “family values,” but has been married three times and has two much-publicized affairs to his credit. He’s a staunch social conservative in a country that is increasingly resistant to old-school Christian Right politics. And his primary appeal is to older, white voters in a country that grows more racially diverse each election. To put it bluntly, many Democrats are beginning to think of Gingrich’s candidacy as a sort of Christmas miracle, assuming he would be easy to beat in November 2012.
But the history of 20th century politics reminds us to be cautious in reading too much into these numbers. National polls are notoriously deceptive; just ask Hillary Clinton, who led the national polls for most of her presidential run in 2008. Or ask Howard Dean, who did the same in 2004. Remember Paul Tsongas, who led the national polls for much of the 1992 presidential campaign? If your answer is “no,” you’re not alone.
But the original crash-and-burn national candidate was Democrat Ed Muskie. He was the unquestioned front-runner for the Democratic nomination in 1972, and most observers believed he stood a strong chance of unseating incumbent Republican Richard Nixon.
The story of Muskie’s political implosion is political legend, and no one can ever be sure exactly why it occurred. But we know where it started: in New Hampshire, with a controversy over his wife’s behavior. The Manchester Union Leader posted an article attacking Muskie’s wife Jane as an excessive drinker and someone who frequently used foul language. The article also levied attacks against the candidate himself, but it was the words about his wife that drew most of Muskie’s ire. He responded with an emotional outburst that journalists later reported included tears. To his dying day, Muskie claimed that he was not actually crying, but the accusation stuck, and his campaign ended in dismal failure. Did he actually cry? You be the judge:
The impact of “Tear-Gate” (as we would call it today) was certainly negative, but it was not the only reason Muskie’s campaign died. As a longtime admirer of George McGovern, I must point out that McGovern’s legion of grassroots supporters gave him a strong edge in many primary and caucus states. Also, Muskie’s inability to understand the depth of anti-war sentiment in his party hurt his chances. But Muskie’s rapid downfall is a reminder to those who would prematurely anoint Gingrich as the GOP nominee: National polls really don’t mean much until the real show begins.
If Gingrich can win Iowa and New Hampshire, his campaign will be here to stay. Until then, he’s just the next in a long line of Republican front-runners. If you’re interested to know if leading the national polls guarantees victory, just call Michele Bachman or Rick Perry. I’m sure they will be happy to take your calls!