[Posted by Karl]
Yesterday, I ended up in part of a conversation with Ace and Lori Ziganto (among others) about electability. Ace was soliciting comment on why people who did not take Newt Gingrich’s campaign seriously for so long suddenly find him electable. Playing devil’s advocate, I hypothesized that maybe the campaign has not made Newt seem more electable, but has made Mitt seem less so. But is that really what’s happening? And how electable (or unelectable) is Newt?
If I understood Ace’s argument, part of it is that conservatives looking for a viable NotRomney are saying Gingrich is (more) electable now simply because he must be if Romney is to be defeated. The Gallup tracking poll arguably contains some support for that theory. From Jan 15-22, Romney lost 12% among conservatives, while Gingrich gained the same amount to tie at 28%. Among liberal and moderate GOPers/leaners, Romney held steady at 33%, while Gingrich gained 6% to 15%. From that angle, one can argue that Newt’s conservative surge does look like the Not Romney vote trying to gather, although his gains among moderates and liberals suggests a slightly broader shift is also at play. Moreover, this is only one angle from which to view the poll, e.g., Newt’s surge is heavily explained by a shift in older voters from Romney to Gingrich (although this is likely correlated to the conservative shift, as the campaign was not focused on entitlements last week).
Of course, the Gallup tracker is limited to GOPers and leaners. Broader polling may tell us a bit more about the current state of electability. Although trial heats are not predictive this far from November, it’s notable that the RCP averages for Obama/Romney and Obama/Gingrich still show Romney as the more competitive candidate, even as his standing falls within the GOP race. Indeed, Romney was also the more competitive candidate during Newt’s previous surge. Does this tell us Mitt is the more electable candidate… or only that people know less about him? We really cannot be sure.
During yesterday’s discussion, others raised Newt’s currently high unfavorable ratings as an indicator of unelectability. Newt’s average from those recent polls is 55% unfavorable, which is certainly higher than Romney’s average of 42%. Then again, Obama’s average unfavorable rating is 47% — and he’s not in the middle of a nasty primary scrum. Thus, it’s at least possible that Newt’s unfavorables are high now because some on the Right (e.g., Mitt’s fans, or those who found Newt’s attacks on Mitt unfair) are unhappy, while Obama’s unfavorables have yet to be driven up by unified opposition. As with the trial heats, it is also possible that Romney’s lower unfavorables are partially the product of people knowing less about him than they know about Gingrich. Again, there is not solid data on this. It would not be uncommon to have both party nominees carrying high unfavorables, but having one with unfavorables over 50% would be uncommon and possibly fatal.
The latest PPP poll from Florida — showing Newt up by 5% — has some interesting data bearing on these points. On one hand, Newt’s favorability increased while Romney’s declined, suggesting that favorability can be a fluid thing (although likely less so in the general election pool). On the other hand, 15% of primary voters say they would not vote for Gingrich in the general election, while only 9% say that about Romney, suggesting Mitt would be the stronger candidate against Obama (although we should be careful about assuming such attitudes hold after a nominee is selected; there were polls in 2008 suggesting Hillary Clinton supporters would not vote for Obama, but the level of defections was ultimately no different from any other election).
My conclusion from the data is that Romney currently remains the more competitive candidate. His fumbling and stumbling over money issues — his tax returns, Bain Capital, gaffes real or imagined — has wounded him within the GOP electorate, but not outside it…yet. If Romney does not get his act together quickly, he risks losing the mantle of electability among the broader electorate.
Conversely, Gingrich’s exposure of Romney’s weakness has not made Newt a stronger candidate outside the GOP electorate… yet. Conservatives may like Gingrich’s fighting spirit, but Newt will need more support and an improved image outside that group to become the more competitive candidate. Moreover, it is not clear he can achieve that simply by a Romney collapse. In South Carolina, Gingrich appealed more to those in the GOP pool hurt most by our economic malaise; he needs to show he has the same appeal outside the base.