Saturday, November 19, 2011

Is Newt Gingrich Electable?

In the Elephant Watcher profiles of the Republican candidates, each candidate's perceived electability has been ranked on a scale of 1 to 3. Those rated with a "1" are considered by most voters to be unelectable--virtually incapable of winning a general election. Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Ron Paul are in that category. Those rated a "3" are generally considered electable, with a decent chance of winning a general election. Several candidates in that category either declined to run or withdrew, leaving only Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney. Finally, there are the candidates who fall somewhere in between.

Newt Gingrich is not a totally implausible candidate, having been a Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives; he also possess rhetorical skill and policy knowledge. But he also possesses considerable political and personal baggage, and few outside the Republican Party actually have a favorable opinion of the man.

Then there are the poll numbers. The following are the last two months' worth of match-up polls pitting Gingrich against Barack Obama. It's not pretty:

Gingrich vs. Obama
11/15 Gingrich 41, Obama 46 (-05) -- Fox News
11/13 Gingrich 45, Obama 53 (-08) -- CNN
11/14 Gingrich 42, Obama 54 (-12) -- Pew Research
11/13 Gingrich 43, Obama 49 (-06) -- PPP (D)
11/12 Gingrich 38, Obama 50 (-12) -- Rasmussen
11/10 Gingrich 45, Obama 47 (-02) -- McClatchy/Marist
11/04 Gingrich 38, Obama 44 (-06) -- Rasmussen
10/31 Gingrich 37, Obama 52 (-15) -- Quinnipiac
10/13 Gingrich 34, Obama 49 (-15) -- Rasmussen
10/10 Gingrich 39, Obama 50 (-11) -- PPP (D)

In all ten polls, Gingrich trails Obama. In half of these, he trails Obama by more than ten points. In only one does Gingrich manage to get less than 5 points behind Obama. In half the polls, Obama reaches the critical 50% level; Gingrich fails to even break 40% in half. On average, Gingrich is about 10 points behind.

Do these polls mean anything? There are a few things to consider. First, like any national poll, they suffer from the fact that only a slice of the electorate is paying any attention to the Republican primary. Gingrich's numbers have improved where he has campaigned. His debate performances have improved viewers' opinions of him. Thus, by the time election day 2012 rolls around, Gingrich's numbers would improve considerably. Moreover, when a candidate actually wins the nomination of his party, his numbers increase. Being a winner and having your party coalesce around you will add several points.

But there is also bad news. Although it's true that Gingrich's "positives" are not all priced into those numbers, there are also a lot of "negatives" that haven't been priced in yet. Gingrich has not been vetted either by his opponents in the primary or his opponents on the left. Once Gingrich has absorbed all the damage from the Republican primary and the general election, his numbers will go down.

Where does that leave us, with Gingrich's numbers likely to go both up and down? There would probably be a net benefit, which is to say that Gingrich is unlikely to lose to Obama by 10 points. One might estimate that Gingrich would start from behind by, say, 5 points. He would need to use every ounce of his skill to defeat Obama. In other words, Gingrich could win or he could lose. In a future post, we will examine the electability of Romney, who has the highest perceived electability of any of the candidates. If Gingrich is to win the nomination, he must show the voters that he has something valuable enough that they're willing to risk a greater chance of Obama's reelection, to see Gingrich--rather than Romney--in the White House.