Republicans want to win in 2012. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said as much not long after President Obama was elected. The congressional gridlock which came to town after the GOP took the House has pretty much proven that the essential work stoppage in DC has been about positioning for next November. All Republicans need is a candidate that can deliver on the trail, and with the winds of a bad economy at their backs, it’s very plausible they could retake the White House.
And there’s the problem, right there.
The major difference of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s surge to the top of the Republican primary field has been his ability to combine a sense of electability with the fact that he’s not named Mitt Romney. The former Mass. Gov. has simply been unable to convince Republican voters, after years of running no less, that if the party faithful nominate him, they have a good chance of defeating President Obama. Now Gingrich has utilized that opening to make a pitch as the non-Romney candidate, who will also be a good challenger in the general. Republican voters are buying it.
But what seems to be lost in the GOP primary shuffle at the moment is the root of that principle. What exactly makes a candidate electable? In 2012, the issue that general election voters and Republicans themselves care about is the economy. And Mitt Romney still does much better than Gingrich against President Obama when it comes to the economy.
Take Quinnipiac’s national poll from late November. “All voters say 46 - 41 percent that Romney is better able than Obama to handle the economy, the only one of the three top GOP candidates to outscore the president,” Quinnipiac wrote in their analysis of the numbers. “Gingrich trails Obama 47 - 41 percent and Cain trails 49 - 38 percent on that measure.”
New numbers produced by Quinnipiac on Thursday of polling in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida showed the same trend occurring in all three surveys: GOP voters think that Gingrich will be better on the economy than Romney. But among general election voters, Romney leads Obama on the economic issue by more than Gingrich does in all three states.
So the key seems to be that while Republicans are starting to view Gingrich as an electable candidate, his particular skill set as seen by GOP voters doesn’t match the more general electorate. Were he to get the nod, his candidacy wouldn’t start from as strong a position as Romney, by the numbers.
Public Policy Polling (D) pollster Tom Jensen points out a secondary element to choosing Gingrich over Romney for Republican voters. Right now, Jensen said, the economic numbers would probably be too much for Obama to overcome in a matchup against Romney. But if Newt gets the nod, with all of the political baggage that comes with him, the campaign loses focus on the economy and becomes more personal.
“The bad economy is the GOP’s greatest asset for 2012 and if they have a bland and boring candidate like Mitt, they can keep voters focused on that issue,” Jensen said in an email to TPM. “But with Newt it’s going to end up being more about the candidate and less about the issues, and that’s to the Republicans’ disadvantage. With Obama’s numbers where they are and the economy what it is, this election is sitting up on a tee waiting for the Republicans to hit it — but if their candidate is Newt, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll whiff.”
Kyle is the Editor of TPM Media’s PollTracker. He graduated from Beloit College (WI) and began working in politics before getting an M.A. in magazine journalism from New York University, where he interned at TPM and the website of The New Yorker.