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Not So Fast Newt: Gingrich As Polling Phenomenon

Poll after poll shows Newt Gingrich with a commanding lead for the Republican nomination for president.

The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll is the gaudiest yet, giving the former speaker of the House 40 percent among Republicans across the country, nearly double the number for erstwhile front-runner Mitt Romney.

The sudden surge by the always-controversial Gingrich has sprung a gusher of emotion from the political class: primarily delight among Democrats and horror in some quarters of the GOP.

Gingrich, whose campaign was all but moribund a few months ago, has reacted with a cocky sort of "knew it all along" smile and a pithy quote: "I will be the nominee."

And at least a few commentators have mused about Gingrich being just the right Republican to challenge President Obama. None can doubt that Gingrich combines a quick mind (and even quicker tongue) with a combative style that might rough up the incumbent in fall debates.

But not so fast, Newt.

What's going on here may be as evanescent as it was unexpected. What's going on here may not just be measured by polls, it may well consist of polls and nothing else.

We won't know, of course, until Iowans hold their caucuses on Jan. 3 and primary voters start showing up in New Hampshire (Jan. 10), South Carolina (Jan. 21) and Florida (Jan. 31). But we do know that it's a lot easier to tell a pollster you're for somebody than it is to vote for that somebody. The former is theory, the latter is fact. People know when they are going to vote and they get ready. No one knows when or even whether they're going to be polled.

So prospective voters who are polled today have not really settled on their candidate, nor even thought about it much. One thing certain is that they have not finished ingesting information about their choices; many have barely begun.

One thing people have all heard is buzz. Buzz about Michele Bachmann being the new Sarah Palin. Buzz about the Reaganesque air of Rick Perry. Buzz about the flat tax and booming voice of Herman Cain. All had their days as polling phenomena, earlier this year.

Then, of course, more information emerged about each of them; and more information is often a buzz killer.

You don't have to have seen any of the bad Bachmann debate lines or the Perry brain freezes in real time. You just hear about them and see them on YouTube later. Negative buzz spreads even faster than positive.

Polls are the metric of buzz, but they are not always a great predictor of votes. In the fall of 2007, Rudy Giuliani was the consensus leader of the GOP pack. At the time, many of us wondered how a former New York mayor who favored abortion rights, gun control and gay rights could possibly be the Republican favorite.

But those elements of the man's profile were not in play yet. He was simply the Sept. 11 hero of New York, and New York news media are great generators of buzz.

As it turned out, Giuliani was a media candidate and a polling phenomenon. Once the real contest got underway and real voters got focused, Giuliani disappeared. So did the man who was supposed to be running right behind him, former senator and TV actor Fred Thompson.

We may be witnessing another iteration of that phenomenon right now. We know that the conservative base within the Republican Party is uneasy — at best — with Romney. Tea Party activists have decided the Mormon former governor of Massachusetts simply will not do.

Still, no other clear conservative alternative has survived the crucible of the debates. So the base has turned, at long last, to a man of the 1990s — a politician once known to all who has been out of office long enough to seem new again.

At least, for the moment.

Right now, Gingrich leads in Iowa in the respected Des Moines Register poll. But already there are signs of buzz kill. His negatives have shot up in recent days as the information rush kicks in.

The man who is on the move in Iowa may well be Ron Paul, the libertarian iconoclast with the diehard loyalists. No one doubts his core supporters will show up on caucus night. If Paul wins or comes close, Gingrich's star will be dimmed overnight. He can come back in South Carolina and perhaps be the Southern regional champion.

But his chances at the nomination depend on maintaining the momentum he enjoys right now, a momentum borne almost entirely on being the buzz boy — in the polls.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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