Will GOP Risk Goldwater II With Newt Gingrich in 2012?

by Stuart Rothenberg January 25, 2012 · 11:20 AM EST

In 1964, an angry Republican Party threw caution to the wind and nominated conservative Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater for president. Eight years later, Democrats rallied behind South Dakota Sen. George McGovern, an unapologetic liberal.

In each case, the party’s rank and file embraced what it thought was a truth-teller who reflected the core values of its party and promised to lead a movement. And, of course, both candidates lost badly, though Goldwater’s defeat did have a positive long-term effect on his party.

It isn’t yet clear whether Republicans are willing to roll the dice on a risky nominee this year, but after three nominating contests, it’s impossible to discount that possibility.

The difference between 1964 and 1972, on one hand, and 2012, on the other, is that the incumbent president this year is weak and extremely vulnerable in the general election. Throwing away a nomination to make a statement is one thing when the nomination probably doesn’t matter. It’s another thing when that nomination looks valuable.

Whatever his weaknesses, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) is getting plenty of mileage from his strong debate performances and attacks on the establishment and the liberal elite media.

His populist message makes conservatives feel good, much as former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s angry message of change resonated with Democrats in late 2003 and much as Goldwater’s “in your heart, you know he’s right” message won over conservatives almost 50 years ago.

Republican grass-roots conservatives unquestionably are angry — at President Barack Obama, at the national media and, most importantly, at their own party leaders, who they believe have been too willing to compromise on core concerns. They might be so angry that they are willing to overlook Gingrich’s character flaws — character flaws they would scream about in a liberal Democrat.

Looking forward, there were two particularly interesting things to glean from South Carolina exit polls.

First, a majority of GOP primary voters who said that the ability to defeat the president was their top concern voted for Gingrich.

Gingrich almost certainly won the electability argument in South Carolina because of his debate skills and combativeness, but it also isn’t unusual for people to assume that the person they prefer is also the strongest general election candidate. It’s an easy rationalization to make.

The reality of the situation is different, at least so far. Gingrich’s personal ratings have been worse than Romney’s nationally, and polls to this point repeatedly have shown former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney running far better against Obama than does Gingrich. That means future general election trial heats could affect the GOP race’s outcome.

Second, self-identified evangelicals and those who said the candidates’ religious beliefs mattered “a great deal” or “somewhat” were willing to overlook Gingrich’s adultery and the charges coming from his second wife that he proposed an “open marriage.”

For evangelicals, past behavior is less important than what “is in your heart” — at least when it comes to self-professed conservative Republicans. Gingrich’s acknowledgement of past errors and talk of his turning to God was enough for evangelicals who were motivated either by populist anger or by Romney’s Mormonism.

But that’s where evangelicals are different from nonevangelicals.

Republican insiders are so worried about Gingrich at the top of the GOP ticket because they doubt his ability to win the presidency, don’t believe that the former Speaker’s character and behavior will be so quickly forgotten by general election voters and are worried that he would be a horrible president, even if he were to win.

The former Speaker likes to say that he will present a strong contrast to Obama in what will be an election offering two very different visions.

He could be right about that, but an election of “visions” is not what Republicans should want or need this year. They should want the election to be a referendum on the president’s performance. The more the 2012 presidential contest is a “choice” rather than a “referendum,” the better it is for the president and his re-election campaign.

Gingrich sees himself in such historic terms that he won’t allow the election to merely be about Obama. He’ll want it to be about his vision — which will automatically make it about him. And that’s politically dangerous, given Gingrich’s ego, his lengthy record in Washington, D.C., his personal life and his tendency to over-dramatize and exaggerate.

Unfortunately for Gingrich (and for his party, if he is the nominee), the larger electorate is less religious than Republican evangelicals, and they are less likely to excuse Gingrich’s personal failings simply because he says he has asked for divine forgiveness.

Most swing voters are likely to see a man who dumped two wives (the second while he was lambasting the Democratic president for cheating on his wife), who claimed Freddie Mac hired him as a “historian,” who was reprimanded by the House and who pushed the envelope in who knows how many other ways — and they will start to wonder about his values and judgment.

Romney is still more likely than not to be the GOP nominee — most members of the media have a tendency to overreact about the last primary, and Gingrich isn’t on the ballot in Virginia — but the increased nervousness among party insiders, from elected officials, strategists and party leaders, is both understandable and warranted.

Gingrich is a confident speaker and campaigner, and he is good at tapping Republican anger and frustration. It would be silly, I believe, to say he has no chance of becoming the Republican nominee. However, over the long haul, he is likely to run into trouble. He simply isn’t a very likable and appealing personality, and the men and women who served with him in government have the worst opinion of him.