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Money and religion are the reasons Mitt Romney won Nevada on Saturday, his second straight victory since losing to Newt Gingrich in South Carolina. Romney outspent his rivals five-to-one (in fact, he’s spent more than John McCain did during his entire 2008 campaign) and enjoyed the backing of a sizable Mormon bloc, which made up 26 percent of the electorate. In another instance of political ecumenism between differing faiths, Romney, a Mormon, appealed to nearly 50 percent of Nevada’s white evangelical voters.
Poor Newt Gingrich has been losing ground since his come-from-behind win South Carolina. In Florida, Romney quit focusing on Barack Obama and began focusing on Gingrich; he crushed the former House Speaker with tsunamis of attack ads. Some say those ads caused poor voter turnout in Florida. That only got worse in Nevada. Compared to 2008, about 25 percent fewer voters came out.
Gingrich may be cash-poor but he’s always been calumny-rich. In Florida, he said Romney, as governor of Massachusetts, had prevented Holocaust survivors on public assistance from eating kosher. That was kittenish compared to his latest. In creating distance between Romney and the hardline conservative wing of the GOP, Gingrich called him “Obama-lite” and a “George Soros-approved candidate.” In dog-whistle-speak, that translates roughly to: He’s like an uppity black man and a rich Jew.
Gingrich said voters “want a candidate who represents Americans who work, pay taxes and believe in the Declaration of Independence, not somebody who is clearly against the American ideal.” Gingrich cashed out on his political connections for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-backed mortgage lenders. He’s now a millionaire.
Gingrich held a press conference after the Nevada results that sparked speculation that he may be pulling out. No such luck. Instead, his staff announced a “delegate-based” strategy. That means what we’ve known since Florida. The new rules of the Republican Party mean states are no longer winner-take-all. Instead, candidates win a proportion of delegates. Gingrich has reason to stay in the race, which is what he said he’d do.
Of course, the longer Romney has to fight, the more banged up he will be in November. He’s said that a prolonged battle will better prepare him, and maybe that’s true. The real damage may be self-inflicted and at this rate, who knows what condition Romney will be in.
In January, Romney took heat, somewhat unfairly, for saying he likes to fire people. That was taken out of context, but still. He said it. After winning in Florida, he told CNN that he’s “not concerned about the very poor.” That line is unfortunately the same in context or out.
A long fight for the GOP’s heart has Romney worried insomuch that he’s made secret deals with Ron Paul, the libertarian candidate. They have agreed not to savage each other. A partnership like this brings the promise of Paul’s energetic and young followers, and also the potential for reviving Tea Party fanatics who love Paul but yawn whenever Romney enters the room. The upside for Paul is that he might get a speech at the convention and therefore pave the way for his son, the truly weird Rand Paul and his nascent presidential ambitions.
That may backfire if Gingrich can hold on. Paul is the guy most people believe could lead an insurgent third party but Gingrich, in his quest to peel away every delegate he can from Romney, may be positioned just for that. His biggest problem, however, isn’t money. His biggest problem is that so few people like him.
John Stoehr is a lecturer in English at Yale University.