Think Newt Can't Win the White House? Think Again

The president has made some real gains but he is also at the mercy of the economic indicators and how people feel. Only one in five feel the nation is heading in the right direction. For his part, Gingrich is at the mercy of himself -- as unpredictable as the weather and the economy.
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Newt Gingrich has not won the Republican nomination for president yet. Given his history and temperament, he has a long way to go. He certainly has a record of torching himself just when things are riding high, but with three weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses he can neither be counted in nor counted out for the Big Prize in November.

As things now stand, President Barack Obama has a job approval rating in the mid-forties -- borderline acceptable for re-electing an incumbent. But barely 40% of likely voters feel he deserves re-election and that is clearly a rough number for any incumbent. At the same time, as he works to consolidate support among the key groups that helped in win in 2008, he is thus far achieving modest success. African Americans are nearly where they were in supporting him (90% in my latest poll). His numbers are growing among Hispanics and could likely be helped even further as Republicans continue down their hard line road on illegal immigration.

Moderates are moving solidly behind Mr. Obama, but young people -- so filled with anxiety and despair compared with the hope they sensed three years ago -- remain a problem. Twelve states he won in 2008 have voted solidly Republican in 2010 -- New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Virginia, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Florida, Indiana, New Mexico, Nevada, and Colorado. While the President was behind in head-to-head matchups against leading Republican candidates much of the year, he now is either in a slight lead or tied in most of these states.

Democrats are salivating at the thought of running against Gingrich. But new polling suggests that the general election could be more competitive that we thought if the former Speaker is the GOP nominee. I tested seven issues for their importance and found no surprises. Below are the issues ranked by the percentages of voters who said they were the "most important" and "very important" issue:

Economy/Job Creation:89Deficit Reduction:86Middle Class Taxes:79Health Care:78National Security/Terrorism:77War/Foreign Policy:70The Environment:54

The president is judged better equipped than Gingrich to handle three of the issues: middle class taxes, the environment, and health care. Gingrich leads on two issues -- deficit reduction and war/foreign policy. But the two candidates are really tied on two issues that have dominated the past two presidential elections: the economy/jobs (Obama, 38%, Gingrich 36%) and national security/terrorism (Gingrich 38%, Obama 36%). On jobs, Obama leads among young voters, Hispanics, African Americans, Catholics, women, moderates, low income and eastern and western voters. Gingrich holds a lead on this issue among independents, southern, high income, and typically conservative leaning voters. But significantly, the two are tied among voters in the Central/Great Lakes region and suburban voters.

On national security and terrorism, Obama leads among women, younger voters, moderates, Hispanics, African Americans, and low income voters. Gingrich leads among the same groups as on the economy but he adds a lead among college graduates, voters over 50, and voters in the Central/Great Lakes and suburbanites. The deal is not yet closed.

As I have in every presidential year since 1996, I also tested key characteristics that voters are looking for in a new president. Below are the results ranked by the combined percentages of "most important" and "very important":

A Problem Solver:95A Good Manager:90Understands the Needs of Middle Class:85Experienced in Business:78Will Maintain American Values:75Experienced in Government:75A Good Family Person:67Seeks Consensus from Opposing Sides:66Sticks to Beliefs and Won't Compromise:58An Eloquent Speaker:38

The president led the former Speaker in four categories by substantial margins -- Eloquence (59% to 21%), Understanding the Needs of the Middles Class (42% to 34%), Good Family Person (56% to 19%), and Seeks Consensus (41% to 26%). Gingrich led in two categories (Experienced in Business (39% to 27%) and Experienced in Government (47% to 33%). But on the two main characteristics -- Problem Solver and Good Manager -- the two candidates are tied. Not surprisingly, given the hyper-polarization that exists in the nation, they are also tied on Maintaining American Values. On all three, Gingrich led the president among independents -- but with substantial numbers of undecideds.

So where are we? Advantage no one. There is a whole lot of campaigning ahead of us. The president has made some real gains in his polling but he is also at the mercy of the economic indicators and how people feel. As of now, only one in five feel the nation is heading in the right direction. For his part, Gingrich is at the mercy of himself -- as unpredictable as the weather and the economy.

But to those who think Gingrich cannot win, stop thinking.

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