Gingrich's Electability Argument Doesn't Make Much Sense

Many voters seem persuaded that the resurgent GOP candidate would be a better nominee than Mitt Romney, but experts aren't so sure.

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Lately, Newt Gingrich devotes a substantial portion of his stump speech to arguing that he would be the best general-election candidate to beat President Obama among the GOP contenders. Voters appear to be buying it: in Saturday's South Carolina primary, Gingrich won a staggering 51 percent of voters who told exit pollsters their top priority was being able to beat Obama -- and that was the largest group of voters, at 45 percent.

What's Gingrich's argument? It has a few prongs. First, he says he would overpower Obama in debates, humiliating him and exposing him as a fraud. Second, he says his conservative views would provide voters with a strong contrast with the incumbent, giving those dissatisfied with Obama a true alternative rather than a near-equivalent, as he paints Romney. Finally, Gingrich argues his big ideas and sweeping oratory would allow him to make inroads with non-traditional Republican voters such as minorities and the poor.

The persuasiveness of these arguments is largely emotional, but some of it can be evaluated. We bounced it off a couple of political scientists -- exactly the sort of know-it-all, America-destroying elites Gingrich has so much contempt for.

1. Gingrich will win the election by winning the debates.

"As the nominee, I will challenge the president to seven three-hour debates in the Lincoln-Douglas tradition. I will concede up front that he can use a teleprompter if he wants to. ... Here's why I think he'll end up doing it. Psychologically, how does he get up in the morning and look in the mirror -- Columbia graduate, Harvard Law graduate, editor of the Harvard Law Review, finest orator in the Democratic Party -- and say to himself, 'I'm afraid to debate this guy who taught at West Georgia College?' .... In my acceptance speech, I will announce that the White House will be my scheduler. Wherever the president goes I will show up four hours later. With modern 24-hour news cycles...I don't think it will take many weeks of me methodically rebutting his speeches." -- Newt Gingrich, town hall in Beaufort, S.C., Jan. 19, 2012

Brendan Nyhan, Dartmouth College: "Debates happen very late in the campaign and generally do not change the outcome. In general, their importance is overstated. It's extremely implausible we will have seven three-hour debates. I expect we will have three debates in the standard formats. This is a highly structured process negotiated between the media and two risk-averse campaign staffs. We have no idea how Gingrich would manage a general-election campaign, but in the past, candidates have been relatively cautious.... Gingrich has been supposedly winning debates in front of partisan Republican audiences. That's not the same thing as a general election, where people won't necessarily be cheering those red-meat lines."

Verdict: Doubtful.

2. Gingrich will win the election by presenting a stronger contrast with Obama than Romney.

"I think we need a candidate who's far apart from [Obama]. I can't imagine a debate between Romneycare and Obamacare. They'd be too close together, it would make no sense at all. But I can imagine a debate between freedom, independence, you and your doctor, versus the bureaucrat in Washington telling you what to do. That debate we will win decisively." -- Newt Gingrich, town hall in Easley, S.C., Jan. 18, 2012

Alan Abramowitz, Emory University: "While it's true that motivating the base and getting strong turnout of the base is important, and Newt Gingrich might be better than Mitt Romney when it comes to energizing the conservative base, overall it's a dubious argument. Gingrich doesn't appeal very much to independents or Democrats. The Republican base isn't large enough to win the general election by itself -- in order to win a general election you need to appeal to the swing voters and make inroads among Democrats. The way he's campaigning is not going to appeal to them. He's a very polarizing figure who would also energize the Democratic base to come out against him."

Verdict: Not likely.

3. Gingrich will win the election by campaigning to non-traditional Republican audiences and converting them with his positive vision, like Reagan did.

"I believe we can go into every neighborhood in America, of every background, and say to people, 'Would you rather your children had dependence with food stamps on the government or independence with a paycheck from a job?' And I believe we will win that argument everywhere, and I think we can set up a campaign this fall of extraordinary proportions by bringing the country together. I don't want to run a Republican campaign. I want to run an American campaign." -- Gingrich, Easley, Jan. 18

"In 1980, when Ronald Reagan started the year about 30 points behind Jimmy Carter and when the Republican establishment described his economic ideas as "voodoo economics," Reagan just cheerfully went out and won the debate, won the nomination, and won the general election carrying more states than Roosevelt carried against Herbert Hoover. I would suggest that a solid conservative who believes in economic growth through lower taxes and less regulation, who believes in an American energy program, who believes in a strong national defense, and who has the courage to stand up to the Washington establishment, may make the Washington establishment uncomfortable, but is also exactly the kind of bold, tough leader the American people want, they're not sending somebody to Washington to manage the decay. They're sending somebody to Washington to change it, and that requires somebody who's prepared to be controversial when necessary." -- Gingrich, GOP debate in Tampa, Fla., Jan. 23, 2012


Abramowitz: "This election is going to be decided in about a dozen states by swing voters in those states. Reagan's election had very little to do with his speaking ability or his personality. It had everything to do with the fact that Jimmy Carter was very unpopular. His approval rating was in the low 30s. Obama's approval rating is 12 to 15 points higher. Unless his approval collapses and the economy deteriorates, I don't think this is going to be like 1980."

Verdict: Nice try.

4. Michele Bachmann bonus argument: Obama will lose no matter whom we nominate.

"Anderson, the good news is, the cake is baked. Barack Obama will be a one-term president; there's no question about that. Now the question is, we need to listen to Ronald Reagan who said no pastels, bold colors. I am the most different candidate from Barack Obama than anyone on this stage. We can't settle in this race." -- Michele Bachmann, GOP debate, Las Vegas, Oct. 18, 2011

Abramowitz: "When an incumbent president is running for re-election, the election is mostly a referendum on the president. The challenger only makes a difference at the margins, and we're talking about a pretty small difference."

Nyhan: "The effect of ideology tends to be overstated relative to the state of the economy. But that's based on a data set that doesn't have a Bachmann- or Gingrich-style candidate. Assuming you nominate a normal, generic Republican, the fundamentals predict a closer race. Romney is more or less a generic Republican candidate. In a bad economy, that's enough. But we haven't seen the parties nominate someone like Bachmann or Gingrich."

Verdict: Political scientist approved (mostly).

Image credit: Paul J. Richards / Getty Images
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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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