Newt’s appeal in the Fox News age

A pugnacious attitude and selective exposure in the base propelled Gingrich

Newt Gingrich’s big win in the South Carolina has frightened Establishment Republicans who look at Gingrich’s favorability numbers. (Source).

Gingrich winning the nomination brings with it the very real prospect of not only losing to President Obama but also big losses in congressional and state elections.

But Newt’s zombie success — coming back after being written off for dead, more than once — is not only due to Mitt Romney’s incompetence as a candidate (a friend the other day described him as the worst national candidate since Thomas E. Dewey, which I think is unfair to Dewey).

No, Newt’s comeback is due to a match between him and a base that’s been in a media bubble. As George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum wrote:

The business model of the conservative media is built on two elements: provoking the audience into a fever of indignation (to keep them watching) and fomenting mistrust of all other information sources (so that they never change the channel).

Indeed, selective exposure — the tendency to gravitate toward media outlets that are consonant with one’s world view — is especially strong among conservatives. As a recent PPP TV News Trust poll shows, conservatives trust only Fox News while independents and Democrats trust a much wider array of news sources, but not Fox.

And this goes beyond TV news, with conservatives gravitating toward content providers that create material supportive of their world views. Billionaire funders have created organizations that claim to be legitimate think tanks, but are not. As Frum states:

Backed by their own wing of the book-publishing industry and supported by think tanks that increasingly function as public-relations agencies, conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics.

And so along comes Newt, with his ability to push emotional buttons sensitized by Fox and others.

The South Carolina acceptance speech showed how good Gingrich is it at playing to the emotions of the right. In it, he chastised elites, elite media or just the media seven times; Saul Alinsky, four; religious bigots, three; food stamps, three; and added pokes at San Francisco, socialism and bowing to Saudi kings for good measure. (Politico)

Gingrich’s victory speech even evoked Obama’s teleprompter, a tool used by speakers for decades, but portrayed by Fox News and others as an indication of a lack of ability. David Frum explains:

Outside the system, President Obama—whatever his policy ­errors—is a figure of imposing intellect and dignity. Within the system, he’s a pitiful nothing, unable to speak without a teleprompter, an affirmative-action phony doomed to inevitable defeat.

In evoking this “pitiful nothing,” Gingrich portrayed himself as the more electable, largely based around the message that he would do a better job in the fall 2012 debates. One Gingrich SuperPAC ad promoted this message, portraying Romney as unable to counter certain attacks from the President.

Gingrich’s last South Carolina debates featured him confronting media questioners, as South Carolina voters looked for a pugnacious man. Listen to this voter interviewed by the Washington Post:

“I think Mitt Romney is a good man,” said Harold Wade, 85, leaving a polling place in this picturesque seaside suburb outside Charleston. “But I think we’ve reached a point where we need someone who’s mean.” And Gingrich, he said, was the only one mean enough.

In a region that prizes pugnaciousness, being mean matters. But, with national polls showing Romney falling and Gingrich rising, it also appeals elsewhere.

No, not everywhere — but the media bubble surely affects many Republican voters’ views of the candidates and their electability.

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Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.