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Few Winning Scenarios for Gingrich

About a year ago, back at the old FiveThirtyEight, I had a very skeptical take on Newt Gingrich’s potential candidacy for president. The issue I highlighted is that Mr. Gingrich is neither especially well-liked by Republicans — his numbers among Republicans are fine, but not as good as those for some other candidates — nor among the general population, with whom he is almost as unpopular as Sarah Palin:

Basically, I think Gingrich is fairly close to being a dominated strategy. If Republicans just want to pick the candidate they like the best personally — electability be damned — they’ll go with Sarah Palin. If they want somebody who they think can win, they’ll hold their nose and vote for Romney. And Huckabee, not Gingrich, seems to be their second choice in both those departments.

Now that Mr. Gingrich is inching closer to a presidential bid, has his situation changed any?

No, his fundamentals are still fairly weak. If anything they may have gotten a little worse.

Here are the favorability numbers among all voters for the four “brand name” Republican candidates: Mr. Gingrich, Ms. Palin, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee. (Other candidates — Tim Pawlenty, Haley Barbour — may run as well. But not a lot of people yet know who Mr. Pawlenty or Mr. Barbour are, so their favorability numbers are not terribly meaningful.)


Based on a simple average of all polls since Nov. 1, Mr. Gingrich’s numbers with the general population are 32 percent favorable, 47 percent unfavorable. Those numbers are somewhat worse than when we checked in on Mr. Gingrich a year ago, when they were 35 percent favorable, 38 percent unfavorable.

They’re also not appreciably better than those of the supposedly unelectable Sarah Palin; Mr. Gingrich is perhaps one gaffe away from joining her on the other side of the 50 percent unfavorable mark. Although much can change over the course of a campaign, it’s historically unusual for candidates to begin presidential campaigns with unfavorable ratings as high as those of these two candidates.

But what about among Republicans, who, after all, are the ones who will get to pick their candidate?


Mr. Gingrich’s numbers are decent among Republicans — 60 percent favorable, 24 percent unfavorable. He had nearly identical numbers a year ago.

Still, among Republican voters, Mr. Gingrich has the lowest favorable rating of the brand-name candidates, and the highest unfavorable one. Certainly the differences are not enormous, and could be overcome with a bit of luck or a strong campaign. But there are two further things working against Mr. Gingrich.

First, he has not run a campaign for president (or vice president) before, as the other three brand-name candidates have. In fact, as we noted last year, it’s been a long time since he’s been involved in a campaign of any kind, and he has never run for an office higher than the U.S. House. Although several potential candidates have had their stumbles of late, that could lead to some clumsiness, especially at first.

Second, he does not have a natural coalition to build upon. Mr. Gingrich is geographically Southern, but perhaps not culturally so. He has tried to affiliate himself with outside groups like the Tea Party, but as the former Speaker of the House, he is also one of Washington’s ultimate insiders.

In theory, that could be good thing; Mr. Gingrich could appeal to a lot of different types of Republican voters. But it’s tough to win in a crowded primary when you’re few voters’ first choice. Last month, Gallup detailed primary preferences among 21 different demographic categories of Republican voters; Mr. Gingrich ranked no higher than third among any of them:


A candidate like this is less likely to exploit demographic idiosyncrasies and have momentum-building events like wins in key early primary states. Instead, he would normally hope to become the consensus choice as others dropped out of the race.

The problem for Mr. Gingrich is that the longer the Republican campaign drags on, the more directly delegates and party elites will become involved. Although I’m sure that Mr. Gingrich is viewed warmly by many of those people, by far the strongest argument that a candidate can make in such a scenario is that he can win the general election. Mr. Gingrich, however, runs quite poorly in hypothetical polling against Barack Obama, and so this is a liability for him rather than an asset. Instead, this is the scenario under which a candidate like Mr. Pawlenty or Mitch Daniels might emerge.

If Mr. Huckabee or Ms. Palin decline to run, then Mr. Gingrich’s odds improve, since he is in the most direct competition with them for voters. Even then, however, he would probably need to win Iowa, since the alternatives are Mitt Romney winning (which he would almost certainly follow with a win in New Hampshire, making him very formidable) or a fresher face like Mr. Pawlenty, who would soak up most of the momentum.

Despite his being more certain to run than several other candidates, betting markets put Mr. Gingrich’s chances of winning the nomination at 15-to-1 against; those seem like about the right odds for such a parlay.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.