Some pundits have suggested that Gingrich has gained popularity because conservatives not only want to win the presidency in 2012, but they want someone to “beat Obama like a drum” in the debates. In a sense, they see an opportunity for an articulate, knowledgeable GOP candidate to make the case for conservatism before a big national audience. Some evangelicals seem willing to give Gingrich a pass for his past “misbehavior” for this very reason.
If conservatives want to win in 2012, before they anoint a nominee, they might want to take a look a the state polls matching Obama versus various GOP contenders. In recent polls in Iowa, Florida, Arizona, and Colorado, Romney leads Obama, runs even with Obama, or trails Obama by 1 or 2 points (within the margin of error), while Gingrich trails by 5 to 10 points in these same states. Ron Paul runs better against Obama than does Gingrich, demonstrating his appeal to libertarians on both the right and the left (anti-war voters in particular). Gingrich has big leads over Romney in some of these states in polling for the GOP primary or caucuses. But in the general election, conservatives will likely make up a third or slightly more of the electorate, not nearly enough to win without broadening the base to include moderates and independents. It will do no good for a GOP candidate to shine in the debates and make conservatives happy if that candidate has little appeal to the middle third of America. Who will run better with one of the biggest swing groups — white suburban women with college degrees — Romney or Gingrich?
There may be more states in play in 2012 than in the most recent presidential elections: New Hampshire, Florida, Virginia, Nevada, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, and North Carolina for sure, and possibly New Mexico, Michigan, Minnesota and Arizona. The two parties start with roughly equal bases of Electoral College votes, and each party needs to win most of the battleground states to get to 270. This will be a close election. In the next few weeks, if Gingrich is to hold on and win Iowa, he will need to withstand challenges to his record and the charge that he would be a weak general election candidate.
Winning Iowa is important for Gingrich, because now he is expected to win the state, and anything less will be very damaging, even if the winner turns out to be Ron Paul. If Gingrich wins big in Iowa, he might leapfrog Romney and also win in New Hampshire, where Romney’s lead, once large, has narrowed. Romney can take a loss in Iowa, though a bad one (a distant third) would be a real blow. A close second, or a Paul win, would still leave Romney in position to win the first primary in New Hampshire and regain some momentum. If Gingrich loses the first two, then the glow will be off, and Romney will again become the favorite for the nomination.