Mitt's Clintonian silver lining

Maybe there's an upside to getting lapped by Newt Gingrich

Published December 6, 2011 5:06PM (EST)

Bill and Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire on Feb. 18, 1992, after his primary win.   (AP/Ron Frehm)
Bill and Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire on Feb. 18, 1992, after his primary win. (AP/Ron Frehm)

The slight, tentative lead that Newt Gingrich opened up in Iowa last week has exploded into a commanding advantage, with a new ABC News/Washington Post poll putting the former speaker in first place with 33 percent -- 15 points ahead of both Mitt Romney and Ron Paul. Another new survey, from PPP, puts Gingrich 9 points up on Paul and 11 on Romney, while RealClearPolitics' average of all Iowa polling now gives Gingrich an 11-point cushion.

Not surprisingly, some are now suggesting that Romney should dial back his efforts in the leadoff caucus state immediately, the better to minimize the fallout from a lopsided defeat to Gingrich (and maybe Paul too) on Jan. 3. As National Journal's Reid Wilson put it:

The temptation to deliver a knockout blow in Iowa must be strong for Romney's team. But if he swings too hard and misses, Iowa could punch back and cost Romney the aura of the front-runner that big polling leads in New Hampshire have thus far afforded.

Maybe this is the smart play for Romney, but there's another possibility: that Gingrich will surge to such a large lead in the coming weeks that it will create unreasonable expectations for him in Iowa, opening the door for Romney to frame a closer-than-expected second place finish as a major victory. In other words, Romney could end up in position to replicate Bill Clinton's brilliant "comeback kid" gimmick.

The Clinton story dates to the early days of 1992, when he found himself engulfed in scandal after emerging as his party's clear presidential front-runner. Because the Gulf War essentially froze the political world for much of 1991, the Democratic presidential race had gotten off to a very late start; the field wasn't even set until Dec. 20, when Mario Cuomo -- who would have been the overwhelming favorite had he entered -- announced that he wouldn't run. The race was further complicated by the presence of Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, whose entry turned his state's caucuses into a non-event and ensured that all the early action would be in New Hampshire, which would vote on Feb. 18.

Against what was seen as weak competition, Clinton opened a significant lead by mid-January in fundraising, endorsements and New Hampshire polling. A Jan. 15 Boston Globe survey gave him a 29-17 percent edge in the Granite State over Paul Tsongas, a former senator from next-door Massachusetts. With the Democratic race moving South to Clinton's backyard after New Hampshire, it seemed that the nomination might be settled without much of a fight.

But then came the scandals, first a claim on Jan. 16 from the tabloid Star that Clinton had engaged in an extramarital affair with Gennifer Flowers, then a week later detailed descriptions (and audio recordings) from Flowers of a supposed 12-year relationship, and then a week after that reports that Clinton had schemed as a young man to avoid service in Vietnam. The stories dominated the news for weeks and eroded Clinton's standing. By the start of February, he and Tsongas were running even in New Hampshire, and soon thereafter Tsongas pulled ahead. In the week leading up to the primary, a USA Today/Gallup poll showed Clinton getting crushed 40-20 percent; a Boston Globe survey put the spread at 32-20. Now the political world was asking how big a drubbing it would take on Feb. 18 to knock Clinton out on the spot.

Which created a golden opportunity for Clinton, who kept plugging away in the state with campaign stops, television ads, media appearances, and generally well-received debate performances. Tsongas had clearly pulled ahead, but reports of gigantic polling leads had wildly distorted expectations. Just weeks earlier, a Tsongas win by any margin, even a fraction of a point, would have been seen as a momentous triumph; now he needed to post the impressive margin suggested by polls that were taken at Clinton's lowest moment.

So when primary night arrived and the initial returns showed him trailing Tsongas by only 6 points or so, Clinton swung into action. With just over 20 percent of precincts reporting, he staged what amounted to a victory celebration, refusing to acknowledge Tsongas' victory and crowing to jubilant supporters that "New Hampshire has made Bill Clinton the comeback kid!" Then, before Tsongas ever had the chance to hold his own victory party, Clinton made the media rounds, telling national television viewers that "we won a huge victory here tonight."

As the results slowly trickled in, the press generally played along, emphasizing that while Tsongas would be the official winner, Clinton was doing much better than they'd expected. Tsongas' margin ticked up slightly as the late precincts came in, but by then the headlines for the morning papers had already been written and the perception was locked in place that there'd been two winners in the New Hampshire Democratic primary. Here, for instance, was how the Washington Post framed its lead story:

Former Massachusetts senator Paul E. Tsongas, whose tonic of pro-business economic realism found a receptive audience in this recession-plagued state, marked a remarkable rise from political obscurity today by winning the first Democratic primary of the 1992 presidential campaign.

Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, who only a month ago appeared in position to win this contest outright and seize control of the Democratic race, finished second in the New Hampshire primary. But his recovery from the initial damage done to his candidacy by character questions and his sizable fund-raising advantage will enable him to take the fight to his native South and elsewhere.

There are plenty of differences between the '92 Democratic race and the current GOP one. But the Clinton story shows how funny the expectations game can be. So the higher Gingrich rises in Iowa over the next few weeks, the more challenging it will be for him to score a "real" victory in Iowa -- and the more plausible it will be for Romney to win by coming in second.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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