11:00 A.M., EST
THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: Good morning, and welcome to the Foreign Press Center. Today we’re going to have to a briefing with Alexander Burns of Politico, who will give us an analysis of the results of the South Carolina primary and will talk about the upcoming Florida primary next Tuesday.
Please note that the briefer’s comments are his own, and they are not the U.S. Government’s.
MR. BURNS: Well, thank you very much for having me. I want to begin with just a couple introductory thoughts on South Carolina and the three contests we’ve had so far, but mostly just want to take your questions and get a sense of what you all are interested in about the primaries. I apologize in advance; I’ve been a little bit sick lately. So if you have any difficulty understanding what I’m saying, just tell me, and I’ll adjust.
There have been, broadly, I think, two big theories of how this primary was going to play out. One was the idea – the expectation really among Romney supporters that all the polling that showed Republicans didn’t want to elect him, the fact that he was consistently polling in the 20 to 30 percent range and not getting any higher – that all of that was a temporary condition just born out of the fact that there were a lot of options for people to consider in the race and that once early states started actually voting, you would start to see Romney’s numbers go up, that whatever early hesitation Republican voters have over his record on healthcare, over his more moderate positions in the past on some social issues, over his personal faith, which has become an issue at points in the campaign, that all of that would essentially end up taking a backseat to the fact that he looks like the guy who can beat Barack Obama, and he has the credentials to run in a difficult economic environment. That’s theory number one.
Theory number two, which has been in terms a theory of everyone of Romney’s opponents, is that the reason why he’s stuck or has been stuck at points around 25 percent in national polling and polling in most of the early states is because Romney is just irreparably broken as a candidate, that Republican voters won’t support him, desperately do not want to nominate him no matter how viable he looks in a general election, and that if a conservative is having difficulty gaining traction against him, it’s simply because there are too many conservatives in the field, and that as the race went on and the – excuse me – as the list of candidates got shorter, you would eventually end up with a race that pits Mitt Romney on the one hand against one or maybe two more conservative candidates on the other hand, and that at that point it would become very, very difficult for Romney to sustain his position.
I don’t have an answer for you this morning as to which of those theories is about to be proven right in Florida, but I do think Florida is where we’re going to see one of those theories of the case given a pretty decisive boost. After Iowa, I don’t know that there was a really a profound – to use a Newt Gingrich word, a really profound lesson to learn from Iowa other than the fact that Romney still struggles in the state that he has struggled in for a long time. In New Hampshire, it really looked like – I think immediately after New Hampshire, there was a lot of optimism among Romney supporters, among national Republicans who would like to see an early end to the primary, that there was some optimism that this guy was actually in a position to maybe lock down the nomination this month. If he won South Carolina, won Florida, it would have been very, very hard to see how anybody could continue on.
South Carolina obviously dealt a real blow to that idea not just because Romney lost but because of how decisively he lost; 12 points, 13 points is not a close election. He ended up getting more votes in South Carolina than he got in 2008, but he ended up getting 10 points – his final vote share was 10 points below where he had been polling a week and a half before, which really raises concerns among his supporters about how Romney can perform in a situation where he’s under really intense scrutiny and intense attack by an opponent as tenacious as Newt Gingrich.
And it also showed, I think, for supporters of Newt Gingrich, and to some extent, supporters of Rick Santorum what they find very encouraging in South Carolina is that – it’s not like Newt Gingrich had a perfect week heading up to that election. Romney had a bad week with all the focus on his taxes, his business records; he had two weak or middling debate performances, but Newt Gingrich had his ex-wife come out and make some pretty incendiary allegations, and he performed quite well on election day anyway. So if you’re a Gingrich supporter, or in general if you’re someone who is opposed to Mitt Romney, you have to look at that and say there’s a real hunger among conservatives for an alternative, a hunger intense enough to let people look past issues like the Marianne Gingrich revelation, at least for a couple days.
We’re supposed to talk about South Carolina and Florida, and I think looking ahead to Florida, what we’re going to find out is how each of the issues that were raised in South Carolina plays out over a somewhat longer timeframe and in a much larger and more diverse electorate. The folks in Florida, not just Romney people, but Republicans in Florida in general, they believe very strongly that they’re primary should have more – should be given more importance by the news media and by party leaders than Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina because it is a state that is more representative of the country. You can become President of the United States and lose Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. You usually can’t become President and lose Florida.
Florida has populations – sizeable populations of Latino voters, African American voters. There are not substantial Latino or African American populations in any of the early states except for South Carolina. There are Jewish voters in Florida, who – most of them are Democrats, but they may play some role in the Republican primary, and it’s a very, very expensive state where voters are more casually engaged with the process than they are in Iowa and New Hampshire. And that means that the war on television becomes even more important than it was in any of the other states. Issues like Mitt Romney’s business record, Newt Gingrich’s marriage, Newt Gingrich’s resignation from the House, Mitt Romney’s flip-flop on healthcare, as his opponents call it, those are all – those issues are all going to be litigated to the tune of millions of dollars in television ads, and they’re going to be – how that gets played in the free media, as the political consultants call it, what we do, the free media, I think is unusually important there.
There are two two-hour debates in Florida, and however much money these candidates spend on TV ads, they can’t match the dollar-for-dollar value of an excellent debate performance. We’ve already seen the last couple of days, I think, the way the campaigns are headed in the state. Romney has been running a very aggressive Florida message in the last couple days, clearly trying to take advantage of the fact that Newt Gingrich was involved with Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac, the troubled mortgage lenders that are very, very unpopular with Republicans. Florida is state with a weak economy and a weaker housing market.
So the idea among Romney supporters is if you can tie Gingrich directly to the housing collapse, specifically, not just – Gingrich attacked Romney in South Carolina for being involved in business practices that he said led to the financial meltdown in 2008. In Florida, Romney is going to try to go even more targeted against Gingrich, even more aggressive in saying, “You were paid millions of dollars. You gave advice that directly led to Florida’s housing market really being in the tank.” We don’t know yet exactly what kind of message Gingrich is going to run in Florida. Romney’s campaign and the super PAC supporting him have already run – or I should say they’ve already reserved $7 million in ad time for the primary. Gingrich has not. He’s put up some radio ads, but he has not had a significant television presence. That is probably going to change, but we don’t know exactly what his message is going to be.
An important dynamic to watch with Gingrich in Florida and with Romney is how they court the Hispanic vote. Gingrich has, throughout his career, actually built up a record of trying to broaden the demographic appeal of the Republican Party beyond white voters. It’s not clear whether that’s something that will help him in Florida specifically, but there is a great deal of interest in Gingrich among certain Hispanic Republican leaders and the Spanish-language media in Florida because he is seen as somebody who has taken positions on issues like immigration that are not always consistent with the conservative wing of his party. The counterbalance to that is that Romney has virtually every important Latino Republican endorsement in the state except for Marco Rubio’s, and Rubio is not expected to endorse.
So we’re going to see, as I said, all the issues that were raised in South Carolina played out on a grander scale in Florida. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, I think, you’re going to see really struggling for relevance in the state, and the outcome of Florida will, I think, determine how aggressively Gingrich is going to be able to compete beyond. Romney can survive a loss in Florida, although it would be very, very embarrassing. If Romney were to win Florida by 10, 15 points, I think then it becomes much more difficult for Gingrich to keep this race competitive going forward. So with that, I would just open it up to whatever is on your minds.
MODERATOR: Please wait to get the mike, and please state your name and the media organization.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. Can you hear me? Okay. Kathleen Gomes, Portuguese daily newspaper, Publico. What exactly is the weight of the Hispanic vote in the primary? And we’ve seen Gingrich defend his idea that people who have been here illegally for 25 years should be allowed to stay, and I guess you could say that Romney stands in the right of – to the right of Gingrich in that particular issue. So how do you expect this all to influence the results in Florida?
MR. BURNS: Well, it’s sort of a challenging balancing act. On the one hand, it is one of the few states in the country where there’s a substantial share of Hispanic Republican primary voters. I couldn’t tell you the exact percentage, but it is a real non-zero number. But on the other hand, in Florida primaries over the last few years, the one that I would point to is the 2010 governor’s race. You had one conservative Republican and one more conservative Republican sort of jockeying for position on the issue of immigration. The man who is now the current governor, Rick Scott, entered the Republican primary as a real underdog candidate and then spent an enormous amount of money running an extremely conservative message on immigration related to Arizona immigration law, and he won.
So there’s a school of thought that says that in order to be competitive in Florida you have to be -- in the primary and the general – you have to appeal to Hispanic voters who may want a softer tone on immigration. Jeb Bush spoke out just in the last couple of days saying that an area where he disagrees with Romney is on immigration, and he is a real, I mean, intellectual, political, the center still, I think of Florida Republicans. And then there’s another school of thought that says, well, yes, it would be nice to get those votes if – with a softer tone on immigration, but if you want to get a lot of votes really fast, it can be easier to do that by running a right on the issue.
And I think we’ll see which path Romney tries to take. Gingrich I think has clearly decided not to go the sort of down-the-line, conservative road on immigration. Romney has a run a pretty conservative message on immigration, but it’s a little bit – there’s – it’s a riskier thing to do in Florida than it is to do in Iowa or New Hampshire. In Iowa, if you run a lot of ads or hold a lot of events where you attack Newt Gingrich on immigration, there are not a lot of Hispanic voters there, so they’re not going to punish you in the primary, and they’re not going to punish you in the general election. In Florida, if Romney spends the next 10 days or 9 days talking about how the Federal government needs to crack down on immigrants from Mexico, well, there’s the potential that that would really come back to haunt him if he ends up as the general election candidate.
MODERATOR: We’ll go to New York for a question. New York, please.
QUESTION: Yes, hello. Adele Smith from Le Figaro, the French newspaper. You said a few words about the Jewish Democrats, the older generation probably on the Atlantic Coast, I presume. What’s your feeling? Is there some disappointment? You talked about them because you think they might change and go Republican, for either Romney or Gingrich?
MR. BURNS: Well, in the primary – there are Jewish Republicans in Florida. They are not as influential in the Republican primary as they are in the general election. I think that you have to view Romney as the candidate most likely to win over Jewish Republicans in the primary, just because he is – while there are conservative Jewish voters, they tend to be conservative on issues related to foreign policy and to some extent on the economy rather than on social issues. So a candidate like Romney who is viewed as a business guy with a pro-Israel foreign policy would be more appealing to Jewish voters than someone like Gingrich or Rick Santorum, who – they’re both very conservative on foreign policy, but they’re also very conservative in a lot of areas where even Jewish Republicans are less comfortable with where the party is.
In the general election, this is one of the great, and maybe less consequential than we pretend debates in the political press, whether the Jewish voters in Florida and to some extent Pennsylvania, will become an issue for Barack Obama if he ends up running against someone like Mitt Romney who is seen as potentially having an appeal to Jewish voters. The reality is that Jewish voters can be influential because of their geographic dispersal, but there are, in just raw numbers, not that many of them and many of them live in places like New York, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, where – or they’re not competitive states in the general election.
But before, sort of – before being cavalier about the potential impact of a narrow voting bloc, Florida’s electoral votes were decided by 500 ballots in the year 2000. So if Republicans do end up nominating a candidate like Romney who is viewed as generally palatable to moderate Republicans, Republicans who are liberal on social issues, and if he were to choose a running mate who is a real strong voice on foreign policy, I think you do have to view at least some section of the Jewish vote as competitive.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Tao Zhang from China and Caixin Media. I have two questions. First one is recently Newt Gingrich criticized Mitt Romney for running for CEO, instead of running for the President of the U.S. So facing the current economic situation, why it is an attack instead of a praise? And second question is, based on Newt Gingrich’s recent performance, can we say that money is not so much important this time, or actually in a way it becomes more important as the election moves into a more expensive state? Thank you.
MR. BURNS: Well, I think you’ve hit on two of the essential questions about the Newt Gingrich candidacy. If -- depending on the answers to those two questions, it could determine whether he is actually a credible challenger to Romney, or whether two weeks from now we’re going to be looking back on South Carolina as a southern guy won in a southern state.
On the – to your first question why being a CEO is a criticism – Gingrich believes it’s a criticism because Romney – his critique of Romney is that he is a manager, that he is a tinkerer, that he wants to adjust the government around the edges to make things work a little bit more efficiently at a slightly lower cost, the way you do in a business where you’re trying to improve things without disrupting them. Gingrich sees himself, as he will tell you in every campaign stop, as a disruptive force, as a transformational figure, as somebody who will really take a hammer to the establishment in Washington and rebuild government in the image of Newt Gingrich or the image of – that Newt Gingrich’s supporters would like to see. That’s not what a – typically the way you think of – I mean, I suppose there are some CEOs that do that, but I think, typically, you have a narrower range of action when you’re running a massive enterprise and you’re a publicly traded company.
I don’t know whether Gingrich’s attack – whether the CEO attack works as well as Gingrich thinks it does. I don’t know whether your Republican primary voter hears Newt Gingrich saying he’s running for CEO and not for President and thinks that’s a bad thing. I haven’t seen polling data on it, you talk to voters, and the number one positive thing they say about Romney is, he’s an executive, he’s a businessman. So it’s possible that Newt Gingrich is going around doing Mitt Romney a favor by attacking him for being a CEO.
But it taps into – from the beginning there have been, I think, two big ways to attack Mitt Romney. One is that he’s too moderate. And one is, if you were to somehow attack him on the economy. Gingrich is doing both. He is arguing that Romney is not a bold enough leader, and by attacking Romney’s corporate background, he’s arguing that he can’t actually be trusted to create jobs. So when you combine those two, in theory, it’s a powerful combination. But for the reasons you say, I don’t know that it, that specific line works as well as Gingrich says it does.
On the question of whether money matters less or doesn’t matter, I think it clearly does matter. But it probably does matter less in raw terms, in raw – the raw amount of money spent than it has in previous elections. Rick Santorum spent really a pittance on television and – Iowa, his campaign spent, I think about $30,000. An independent group supporting him spent half a million dollars on television. That’s a respectable amount of money, but it’s not the millions and millions that Romney and Rick Perry spent. Rick Perry spent – we haven’t seen his financial report – but he raised $17 million in the first quarter – excuse me, in the third quarter of the year, presumably spent nearly all of it trying to come back. And all those television ads didn’t do a thing for him.
But the race in South Carolina is a counterpoint to all of that. The reason why Gingrich was able to finish fourth in Iowa, finish sort of tied for 4th and 5th in New Hampshire and then roar back in South Carolina is because a casino billionaire cut him a $5 million check and the super PAC immediately went up with negative ads attacking Romney. In Iowa, I think the balance of attack ads run against Romney versus attack ads run – excuse me, attack ads run against Gingrich versus attacks ads run against Romney, it was something like 7 to 1. You’ll want to check that but in South Carolina it was basically even. So the ability to compete on television was essential in South Carolina even if we’re seeing signs that it doesn’t necessarily matter if you raised $15 million or $30 million. You just need to be able to sort of ante up to compete.
QUESTION: Richard Latendresse with Groupe TVA, a French Canadian TV network. Alexander, a follow up to this question then considering that it sounds like Newt Gingrich doesn’t have much money getting into Florida – $1 to $2 million maybe, while Romney has a lot more money, it doesn’t look good for Florida, if we continue on this thinking.
Two other questions quickly, I was just wondering if you could answer this one also. Any possibility that an outside candidate comes from the blue and try to surprise anyone, like Jeb Bush or --
MR. BURNS: In the Republican primary?
QUESTION: -- in the Republican primary? And you underlined the fact that slowly more and more Ron Paul will become less and less relevant. What’s the interest for him to stay in this campaign?
MR. BURNS: Well, to you first point on Florida and money, I mean, that is why money is going to matter, and Florida has 10 media markets; several of them are extremely expensive. There are four or five major cities in the state they all want to advertise in, and the current governor spent $70 million of his own money to get elected. You don’t need to spend that much, but you have to spend something. And I think you’re absolutely right, that unless Gingrich were to raise a lot of major donor money really fast or if – unless the super PAC supporting him gets another $5 million or more from Sheldon Adelson or other Gingrich benefactors, I think he will face a real problem.
I’ll take your --
QUESTION: Can an outside candidate --
MR. BURNS: An outside candidate. The odds of it happening are so limited, for the same reason that – the reason why we have the field we have right now is because people like Haley Barbour and Jeb Bush and Mitch Daniels decided they didn’t want to do this. Chris Christie. Some of them have now made commitments that would make it very difficult for them to run for president. Haley Barbour has gone back to his lobbying firm. That’s not a great platform to run for president from. Mitch Daniels decided not to run because of his family. He still has the same family.
But I think what you will hear, particularly if Gingrich wins Florida or if he gets very close and sort of scares folks about Romney, Romney’s sustainability in the primary, and particularly in the general, you will start to hear Republican leaders, you will start to see conservative columnists and opinion elites calling for another candidate. And that will be very damaging to Romney if that does happen. You already have had Bill Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, has been running this sort of please, somebody else run for president campaign for a couple months now, and you’re going to hear people other than Kristol getting on that bandwagon if Romney loses Florida. The problem is it’s not clear who the candidate is.
Your second question?
QUESTION: The last question was on Ron Paul.
MODERATOR: Wait for the microphone.
MR. BURNS: Ron Paul, right. Ron Paul, I think he and his supporters have relatively few illusions about his odds of becoming the Republican nominee for president. When I said that he will struggle for relevance in Florida, I mean, he will just because it’s a closed primary, so his supporters who may be independents or disaffected Democrats can’t vote there. His campaign has said that’s an awfully expensive state and they want to save their resources. It doesn’t mean that he’s not relevant at all.
And if you look into February, the list of – his campaign has said they want to focus on caucus states rather than primary states because in caucus states there’s lower turnout, and if you have a very intense, activist following that’s very well organized, you have an advantage. And the candidate in this race that describes is Paul. So in a state like Nevada, which is the next state after Florida, or Minnesota, Colorado, Maine, Louisiana – they all vote in the next month, in the month after Florida – those are states where Ron Paul could start amassing delegates for the Republican convention. And I think the end game that you realistically see here is that Ron Paul goes into the convention with 20 percent of delegates, he gets nominated from the floor, he gets to give a speech, he gets voted down. But his goal here, I think, is more sort of ideological, that he wants to move the Republican Party in a libertarian direction, make his ideas mainstream. And I think by that standard, it’s hard to say that he hasn’t had some measure of success.
The dream scenario for every reporter and political analyst is that nobody gets enough delegates to claim the Republican nomination on the first ballot, that if Romney ended up with 45 percent of delegates and Gingrich had 40 and Ron Paul had 10 and Rick Santorum had 5, then you would start – then you’d have people trying to cut deals. And then Ron Paul’s 20 percent of delegates would become extremely important. But we haven’t had a brokered convention in almost half a century.
QUESTION: Hi. My name is Ayuko Hirano from Nippon TV, the Japanese TV station. Thank you for doing this. My question is: Can you think of any scenario that Senator Santorum will suspend his campaign after Florida primary next week?
MR. BURNS: Well, his – let me first go to why he wouldn’t suspend his campaign, because the argument for why he should get out of the race, I think, is sort of sitting right there. He came in fourth or fifth in New Hampshire, a distant third in South Carolina. He will probably not do very well in Florida. Doesn’t have a lot of money, and Newt Gingrich is such a sort of walking political fireball that it’s sort of hard to see how someone like Santorum, who also wants to be the conservative anti-Romney, gets oxygen in that situation.
You can envision a scenario where Santorum gets 10 percent of the vote in Florida, is 25 points behind the second place candidate, and it’s just – you start to hear a lot of calls for him to get out. I don’t believe that he will. Just talking to his sort of network of supporters, the way they see this race unfolding is look, the party doesn’t want to nominate Romney. This is their view, not mine. The party doesn’t want to nominate Romney, he’s stuck in a 20 percents with the exception of New Hampshire, which is literally where he lives. He’s stuck in the 20 percent range, so he’s going to struggle against Newt Gingrich. On the other hand, Newt Gingrich is a political fireball, and at some point he’ll explode. Again, their view, not mine. But if the party doesn’t want to nominate Romney, and Gingrich probably can’t hold it together, it can be helpful to be the third guy. And Santorum has consistently performed extremely well in debates.
I think that he has done himself – if you think where Rick Santorum was a year ago, he was viewed as politically irrelevant. He was a senator who lost by the widest margin in Pennsylvania history, and nobody really could understand why he thought he could be taken seriously as a presidential candidate. Well, now he’s being taken seriously. And in a scenario where Romney loses Florida, Gingrich is suddenly the national frontrunner, and the party – and by the party, I mean the official Republican Party here in Washington – freaks out about the possibility of Newt Gingrich being the nominee, it could be an opening for him. So that’s why I think it would be unlikely for him to get out of the race, unless, I mean, barring – if there were some massive blowout in Florida where either Gingrich or Romney just crushed the field and it became clear that this person is going to be the nominee, maybe that’ll change the calculus. But I’d be surprised if that’s what we see next week.
QUESTION: Hi. My name is Reymer Kluever from the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung. There’s been a lot of talk about the role of the TV debates. You mentioned them as well. And Gingrich obviously had a lot of success with moving voters towards him simply because of his two debate performances. Where does this come from? That’s so unusual. You hadn’t talk about this four years ago or eight years ago.
MR. BURNS: Well, we had an awful lot of debates four years ago, and what’s changed is the size of the viewing audience. You’re getting 6-7 million people tuning in for these things. In South Carolina, two-thirds of voters said that the debate was important in influencing who they decided to vote for. So it’s a – it’s not a change among the candidates and it’s not a change among the media. It’s a change among voters. I think that it’s been observed that, in a number of different ways, cable television has become more important than it did four years ago. A network like FOX is enormously influential, particularly in Republican politics.
And you do have this phenomenon where all elections tend to be nationalized. In 2010, every Republican House and Senate candidate ran against Barack Obama. That isn’t the way a midterm election used to be run. So you do just have, I think, a media culture where more people nationally are tuning into the same subject matter online and on national television. And because I think there’s more of a culture of sort of shared participation and observation of the political process, the debates have become much, much more important.
Critics of the way the debates have worked have said this election has been so dominated by debates and so dominated by polling that all the media has time to cover is who screwed up on the debate stage, who made a witty comment on the debate stage, and then who went up and down in the first national poll after that. And I think that’s a fair criticism. But for Newt Gingrich, it’s pretty fortunate that that’s the way this campaign is being fought.
MODERATOR: We’ll take a question from New York, please.
QUESTION: Adele Smith, Le Figaro, France. Yes. How do you see – or rather, do you see any substantial mobilization of the Tea Party in Florida, and in which areas? Do you see that – has that happened and is that for Newt Gingrich, you would think?
MR. BURNS: I think we’ve seen it’s been interesting so far. And this could change in Florida, but so far we haven’t seen the Tea Party as an institutional organized force making a huge difference in this primary. If by Tea Party we mean conservatives, if we mean people who are very conservative, then clearly they’re quite influential. But you don’t see organizations like the Tea Party Express, the Tea Party Patriots, the Iowa Tea Party, the New Hampshire Liberty Caucus – groups that sort of came into being in 2010 as a way of trying to organize and channel conservative energy. You don’t see those groups playing a huge role as institutions. And I think that’s unlikely to change in Florida just because of the size of the state. You could roll out 20 county Tea Party leader endorsements and you’d still be missing most of the counties.
So I don’t know how much the institutional Tea Party can weigh in. I do think that you have seen in the last couple of weeks a real movement toward Newt Gingrich among those voters who in 2010 were viewed as the Tea Party, the people who were the conservative base of the party that nominated people like Sharron Angle in the Nevada senate race and Rick Scott in the Florida governors race. If you look at the demographics of those groups, those are, to some substantial extent, the people who have moved toward Gingrich, made his surge possible.
QUESTION: Julian Hattem. I’m with a Japanese paper called the Yomiuri Shimbun. I’m curious about the line of attack ads that Romney’s going to roll out in Florida, because previously, attacks on Gingrich have tended to focus on him as a personality, him being gregarious or whatever, Rick Santorum called him, and obviously the ex-wife and things like that – gregarious, yeah. But it seems like, I mean, they’re releasing an ad today, it’s very focused on Freddie Mac and kind of his past lobbying connections. I mean, do you think – is there a shift going on in that realm that’s more about Gingrich’s connections to Freddie Mae – Freddie and Fannie and housing?
MR. BURNS: Well, I mean, certainly in the paid advertising, what we’ve seen is Fannie and Freddie. Romney did hold an interesting press conference today where he said that Gingrich was erratic. He said in a press conference and on television that it’s an October surprise a day with Newt Gingrich, meaning you can’t – if you nominate this man, you don’t know what he’s going to say the day before the election that could really screw it up for the party.
So I think they’re trying to sort of do this on two tracks – go after him – in South Carolina, the reason why Romney didn’t just lose South Carolina but lost it big was because exit polls show that Newt Gingrich won the argument on the economy and on electability. And those are the two pillars of the Romney candidacy. If people view Gingrich as the person who’s more likely to beat Barack Obama, it’s very, very hard to see how Romney wins this race. That’s why you’re going to continue to hear Romney talking about he’s erratic, he’s explosive, he can’t be trusted, he embarrassed the party when he was Speaker of the House.
On the other hand, in Iowa, the attacks that were the most damaging were the ethics attacks, were this guy has baggage. And when people hear baggage, they don’t just think about his professional baggage. They think about his personal baggage too, even though the Romney campaign isn’t saying it. The attacks that worked the most were the ones that said this guy tells you he’s a conservative but when he was paid to say something different, he said something different, because it really undercuts the idea of Gingrich as an ideas man.
I don’t know whether we’re going to see paid Romney advertisements saying Newt Gingrich is a walking time bomb, but I think the one to watch is the Romney Super PAC because they have traditionally – whatever Romney is saying on the attack, the Super PAC has gone about 30 percent further.
QUESTION: Yeah, hi. My name is Veronica Oleksyn. I write for an Austrian daily called Kurier. And I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about senior citizens and their impact, which candidate resonates best with them. And I’m wondering about so-called snowbirds, people who come down for the winter – can they vote? What impact do you think they’ll have, if any?
MR. BURNS: That’s a great – the snowbirds factor is sort of fun one. To the extent that those people are registered in Florida, I think it helps Romney because many of them do come from places like Massachusetts or New Hampshire or New York, places where people may have already – some of those people may already have voted for Romney.
MODERATOR: Could you explain to them what snowbirds –
MR. BURNS: Oh yes, I’m sorry. Snowbird, a term meaning somebody who lives in a state – in a cold weather state who goes south for the winter. You do have people, typically older people or very wealthy people, who live in – outside of Boston, but from November to March live in Palm Beach. Those people – if they’re lucky. Those people probably, if they’re registered in Florida, would vote for Romney among these candidates, but you never know how many are actually registered. So it may be like a marginal help to Romney, but it’s hard to say how much of a help.
Senior citizens in a Republican – they sort of skew differently in a Republican primary and a general election. In a Republican primary, senior citizens are typically some of the more conservative voters. So for someone like Gingrich, that’s a really important group to target, particularly there is a sort of Gingrich nostalgia with some Republicans, right? Like when was the last time our party really had it together? Rightly or wrongly, there are people who think that was the ‘90s.
So – and just one more point is that Gingrich has been scrupulous about not running as conservative on issues like Social Security and Medicare, presumably – I mean, his people say with an eye towards the general election that you can’t win the presidency if – as a Republican if senior citizens turn against you. Romney has endorsed the Paul Ryan budget. So has Gingrich, but with a lot of reservations. And generally, that’s been an asset for Romney. It’s been a validater for him with conservatives that, well, you may not trust me completely on abortion, but look at where I am on fiscal issues.
In Florida, we’ll have to see how well that plays because you do have this older population of people who – the Ryan budget polls terribly in Florida, and it polls poorly even among Republicans. So I think that’s a constituency that’s up for grabs.
QUESTION: I’m Yen Ying Chen from Hong Kong Phoenix TV. Romney announced that his tax return (inaudible) tomorrow and they think that it’s kind of reason why they lose South Carolina. And how do you think this (inaudible) in Florida? And will you take that is the biggest factor why they lose South Carolina?
MR. BURNS: I think that it was – he might have lost South Carolina without the tax returns issue, but he wouldn’t have lost by 12 points out of the tax returns issue. In South Carolina, it – Republicans – even Republicans who are sympathetic to Romney or even working for Romney, they recognize that that was a huge mistake the way he handled that, not just because of the tax return issue on its own. It’s not that South Carolina voters wanted so desperately to see Mitt Romney’s tax returns that they punished when he didn’t release them. It was that the way he handled it, that he wouldn’t say definitely what he would do about his taxes, that maybe answer in the debate about whether he’d release a dozen years of tax returns, it just reinforced every negative perception that people have about him that he’s rich, that he’s out of touch, that he isn’t honest, that he is – doesn’t give a straight answer. So that’s why they’re releasing the tax returns. And I think the question is what’s in the tax returns that will determine, I think to a great degree, whether he can move off the issue or whether he then needs to spend another two or three days talking about, well, this is why my money is in this place or this is why I paid this rate or donated to this group.
I find it hard to imagine they would release the tax returns if they thought they were going to talking about them for the rest of the week, because if they are, that’s a terrible, terrible sign for Florida. In South Carolina, Newt Gingrich delivered the message that I’m the conservative, and Romney is not. And Romney delivered the message that I don’t want to talk about my tax returns. And if that’s what happens in Florida, that’s a disaster for Romney. So I can’t give like a totally definitive answer just because we don’t know what’s in them, but I think what’s in them will matter a great deal.
QUESTION: Kathleen Gomes, Publico, Portugal. Any thoughts on how the Republican Party establishment is reacting to the Newt Gingrich victory? And second question is: How do you see the race playing out in the two scenarios if Romney wins and if Gingrich wins?
MR. BURNS: I think the party establishment – nobody has come out and – with the exception of Chris Christie who has endorsed Romney and a couple other Romney endorsers, they’re not saying this in public, but certainly Republican Party leaders are alarmed at the idea that Gingrich could be their nominee. They’re frustrated with how Romney has performed over the last week and a half. Gingrich is now a guy who has been killed and has come back to life two times in this campaign. Right? That’s awfully difficult to do. So there’s frustration that Romney has allowed that to happen. And I think that if Gingrich wins Florida, you are going to see – I mentioned before that I think you’ll hear voices suggesting that maybe we ought to find another candidate in this race. If he wins Florida, I think you’re also going to hear more prominent Republicans – more prominent neutral Republicans than we’ve heard so far saying that it would really be a mistake to nominate this guy, even Republicans who are sort of admiring of what Gingrich has accomplished in this campaign, and there are a lot of them.
There are people who are basically not fans of Newt Gingrich who till sort of look at what he’s done in the last eight months and say that’s a heck of accomplishment. There’s an enormous amount of fear that Gingrich as the presidential nominee would not only allow the President to be reelected, but would compromise Republicans’ ability to take the Senate and hold the House. This is really – it’s really sort of above my pay grade to forecast this many steps down the line, but I think at this point, if the primary continues on its current trajectory, whoever the nominee is is going to do a lot of work to bring together a fractured party. Gingrich and Romney – this isn’t just like – this has the potential to be much uglier than Clinton versus Obama, because this is already a very – which was the last sort of 50-state one-on-one primary.
If Romney and Gingrich fight through all 50 states, they have already been so harshly personal in their criticism. Gingrich has called Romney a liar. Romney has said that Gingrich may have broken the laws in his business dealings. Right? I mean, that is like a really hot war. And if that’s the way this continues until June, Gingrich will have to do a lot of work. If he wins, Gingrich will have to do a lot of work to convince people that he’s a serious candidate who can stay on message and win the general. And Romney would have to do a lot of work to convince conservatives that even though I just spent the last six months tearing down a guy that you may have wanted to support, I’m not the bad guy that you think I am. The – realistically, like, the big winner in the last three weeks has been the President. This is – the Democrats could not have scripted a Republican primary – I mean, they could have, but it would have – this is pretty close to how Democrats would have scripted the Republican primary if they wanted it to go in a way that would be helpful to Obama.
QUESTION: Hello. My name, Alexander Gasyuk. I’m with Russian daily newspaper, Rossiyskaya Gazeta. I was curious, what do you think about the role of the social media during the Republican primaries in general, and when it comes to Florida in particular? Who is doing better in this regard – Romney, Gingrich, or perhaps someone else? Thank you.
MR. BURNS: Well, in terms of intensity of support in social media, Ron Paul is certainly the favorite in the field. You can’t write a thing about Ron Paul positive or negative without getting half a dozen comments accusing you of smearing Ron Paul, even if you’re not. I think that Gingrich has tried to organize his campaign in part around the idea that social media is a politically transformational force. He says that he doesn’t need consultants and he doesn’t need to do all the sort of traditional retail politics and traditional television advertising because of the power of the internet.
He is doing better now that he has run some of those TV ads and hired some of those consultants, so he may be the candidate who sort of staked the most – sort of put the most faith in the power of social media. I don’t know that he’s the candidate who’s benefitted the most from it. In terms of how candidates organize on social media, again, it would probably have to be Ron Paul who has sort of gotten the most benefit from that, but you can’t underestimate what the Romney people are also accomplishing in using social media to figure out who the voters are that they want to target and getting their message out in a more precise way than they’ve been able to – than they would have been able to in a previous election because of that. They are – for all his problems in the last week, they are the only world class political operation in the field, and that extends to social media and using it for targeting purposes and advertising purposes and outreach and all that.
MODERATOR: Last question. Okay.
QUESTION: Richard Latendresse, Groupe TVA, Canada. Can you quickly say a few words about the state of the – of Congress. Could you -- like, I know it’s just as hard to predict the outcome of the legislative actions, but – as the presidential one, but at this point, what’s the possibility of the Republican taking Senate and holding onto the House?
MR. BURNS: I think if – let’s just assume for the purposes of argument that Romney is the nominee – because he is the nominee who polls the best against the President, so let’s just say – let’s assume Republicans have a fair fight on a presidential level. They have to be favored to hold the house, but probably not as dramatically as they were a year ago because the way – the redrawing of the congressional map has not worked to their favor as dramatically as people expected. There have been a couple states – California sort of prominent among them, Illinois – where Republicans have really taken a beating in redistricting that has balanced out some of the advantage they were expected to have. Still favored to hold the House.
In the Senate, I think still, the map favors Republicans. There are more than 20 Democratic seats up; I think 11 Republican seats, maybe 12. But this – if there’s been a shift one – in one direction or another over the last year, it’s that the Senate looks a little bit more defensible for the Democrats than it did, and that’s because they’ve made seats in Republican – Scott Brown a year ago was seen as probably undefeatable in Massachusetts. Now I think he’s seen as the underdog in his campaign. The Nevada Senate race has become very competitive. If I were to place a bet, I would – if I were to place a big bet, I would bet on Republicans to be favored to take the Senate, but it’s not a sure thing. And a year ago, I think a lot of people thought that it was.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much.
MR. BURNS: Thank you all.
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