One of the more interesting things to come out of the S.C. primary exit polling is the news that Gingrich beat Romney among voters who ranked ‘electability’ as their top voting issue. Romney had won solidly among electability voters in the first two primaries (63 to 11 in New Hampshire and 48 to 20 in Iowa.) Gingrich was propelled to his victory in S.C. by strong showings in the debates. Among those who said the debates were an important factor in their decision Gingrich beat Romney 50-22.
I think these two sets of data are related by the Republican Fantasy that Obama is a weak candidate who espouses far-left positions, is completely reliant on a teleprompter, and will be embarrassed by a skilled debater like Gingrich. Gingrich has been emphasizing his pledge to challenge Obama to a series of Lincoln-Douglas debates across the country if nominated. There are a few reasons why the image of Gingrich destroying Obama at the debates are pure fantasy.
First, general election presidential debates don’t work the same way as primary debates. General election debates require different tactics, and are also not as important in swaying voters. Gingrich has thrived by not being attacked by other candidates and by attacking the moderators and the mainstream media. When he was the front runner last December, other candidates gently attacked him on his policy positions and he had a series of bad debates. The general election debate audience is also more likely to be sold on a candidate before the debates and to have their final vote come down to a lot more than just the debate performances.
Second, high-level debate rarely has clear winners and losers. Both Obama and Gingrich will be well-prepared on the issues, and most voters will keep the same policy views they had going into the debate. Personality can sometimes sway voters, but on that aspect of the debate Obama has an advantage.
Third, the respective temperaments of Obama and Gingrich actually favor Obama in a series of debates. While Gingrich may be more likely to say things that draw applause and positive attention, the bump from those will not last as long as the drag from his propensity to also say foolish and embarrassing things that will be repeated in both free and paid media. Obama is also more personally likable than Gingrich. Considering the state of the economy Obama’s approval numbers are remarkably high, and are driven in part by voters continuing to like Obama personally. By contrast, Gingrich’s national approval ratings are at 27 percent.
Fourth, Obama is not a weak candidate. While his oratory skills may have been over hyped in the 2008 election, they are formidable. Andrew Sullivan makes the case that Obama’s record is much stronger than conservatives and liberals believe, and that many of the attacks on his presidency are simply empirically wrong. Gingrich’s record as speaker of the house is absolutely dismal, and hasn’t gotten as much attention as it deserves during primary season. That would change if he were the nominee.
It’s understandable that Republican primary voters would like to beat Obama at his own game and are enthusiastic about a candidate who promises to bring the lofty rhetoric of Obama down to earth. But Obama is a relatively centrist candidate, whose most loathed public policy (the individual mandate for health care) actually originated as an idea at the arch-conservative Heritage Foundation in the early 90s. It will be unfortunate for the Republican party as a whole if their hatred of Obama continues to cloud their vision and tricks them into believing that Gingrich would be a strong general election candidate.