Politics Counts: The Rise of Gingrich and the Electability Question


As Mitt Romney has jogged through the early stages of the Republican primary campaign, he has offered one big argument to propel him: electability. Through challenges by Texas Gov. Rick Perry and businessman Herman Cain, the former Massachusetts governor has held that he has the best chance for the Republican Party to unseat President Barack Obama in 2012 in large part because he is the most palatable GOP option for moderates and swing voters.

Polls, including those we have looked at through Patchwork Nation’s geo-demographic county breakdown, have generally shown Mr. Romney’s admittedly self-serving analysis has been correct. In moderate, swing voting areas he does do better than his opponents.

Now that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has emerged as the front-runner for the nomination, however, Mr. Romney’s main claim is being tested. Quinnipiac polls in three key states – Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio – showed Mr. Gingrich doing fairly well against Mr. Obama in head-to-head matchups. In Ohio it showed Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich would actually do equally well against the president.

The poll caught a lot of eyes in Washington this week for what it said about Mr. Gingrich’s potential. But before anyone gets too far down the road of reinterpreting the 2012 Republican field, a few notes of caution. First, this week’s poll, while interesting, is just one poll. Second, it stands in contrast a host of other measures and polls, some going back a very long way, that suggest Mr. Gingrich might have a difficult time as the nominee in the general election.

The 2012 terrain is still taking shape, but independent voters are always key and among them Mr. Romney tends to hold a good-sized advantage. The chart below shows the relative strength of Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich against President Obama with independents in a recent national Quinnipiac poll and in the three state polls. In all cases Mr. Romney is a better performer – sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot.

And that’s only one set of numbers. Dig deeper into Mr. Gingrich’s standing in past polls and you’ll find a politician who has struggled with the broader electorate.

Since 1995, the former speaker’s favorability numbers in The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll have hovered pretty consistently in the mid-20s. He topped out at 33% in 1998. In the Pew Research Center’s polling data he did a bit better at that time, floating more in the 30s in favorability and topping out at 43% in 1998.

Those long-term trend numbers show there is a pretty solid floor for Mr. Gingrich, but also something of a low ceiling – at least historically speaking.

Of course, Mr. Gingrich’s supporters would argue “that’s the past, what about now?” Getting a good read on today’s Newtonian support is trickier. People’s perceptions are still catching up to where he now is – a clear front-runner for the GOP nomination – though it’s worth noting there are a few red flags.

For instance, in those three new state polls that looked good for Mr. Gingrich, the percentage of voters saying they would be “comfortable” with him as president was low — 40% in Florida, 38% in Ohio and 37% in Pennsylvania. Both Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama did better with voters in all three states.

If that’s not enough evidence that Mr. Gingrich would face challenges in a general election, here’s one last measure.

For elections in Patchwork Nation we take special note of two types of counties that hold a lot of swing voters – the largely exurban counties we call Boom Towns and the wealthy Monied Burbs. They are on the map below in beige and rust. (You can click the buttons on the key to see where they are located more clearly.)

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Using a recent Pew Research survey, we looked at candidate enthusiasm, and by that measure Mr. Gingrich did well. A larger percentage of voters in the Boom Towns and Monied Burbs gave Mr. Gingrich a rating of “very favorable” than gave that rating to Mr. Romney.

But when that same survey asked about a head-to-head race with Mr. Obama, Mr. Romney did better. In fact, Mr. Romney did much better in the Boom Towns – seven percentage points. Going by the Pew numbers Mr. Gingrich would actually lose those Boom Town counties to Mr. Obama. Mr. Romney would win them by a substantial margin.

At this point in the campaign, one of Mr. Gingrich’s biggest strengths cited by supporters is his ability to articulate conservative principles. In debates he seems to enjoy sparring with moderators. Those things have helped him build his lead in the polls and a solid base, but those same attributes may hurt him when it comes to broadening out that base to more moderate voters.

Of course, none of this means that Mr. Gingrich isn’t “electable.” We are at the very beginning of what could end up being a protracted race for the GOP nomination, as we noted last week, with many twists and turns to come. But a variety of measures suggest that Mr. Romney’s argument of his appeal to moderates and independents is still fairly solid – for now.