WASHINGTON -- Newt Gingrich may be mired in single digits in the national polls, but influential Republicans in the early primary and caucus states are warming to his candidacy. The latest Power Outsiders survey shows that, although Mitt Romney is still seen as the most electable candidate and best on the economy, Gingrich wins plaudits for his knowledge, experience and positions on other contentious issues.
The weekly GOP Power Outsiders poll, conducted by The Huffington Post and Patch, reaches out to local political activists, party officials and officeholders to observe the critical "invisible primary" that is usually a strong leading indicator of voters' preferences in presidential nomination contests. This week, we interviewed 171 Power Outsiders, including 47 in Iowa, 58 in New Hampshire, 54 in South Carolina and 12 in Florida.
We asked them to choose the best candidate on a series of issues and characteristics. Romney begins with a large advantage on a critical issue: the economy. More than one-third (38 percent) say Romney would do the best job there, followed by Gingrich (19 percent). Herman Cain, Ron Paul, Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman run in a near tie for third (with 11, 10, 9 and 8 percent respectively). Romney also leads Gingrich on taxes, albeit narrowly (23 to 18 percent).
Yet the former House speaker runs far stronger than the former Massachusetts governor on other issues, including foreign policy (40 percent prefer Gingrich), President Barack Obama's health care law (29 percent) and immigration (20 percent).
A second set of questions about more general characteristics illustrates both the underpinnings of Romney's current support and Gingrich's emerging stature. The insiders surveyed overwhelmingly see Romney as most electable -- 50 percent choose him as the "best able to defeat Barack Obama," to 14 percent for Cain, 9 percent for Perry and just 8 percent for Gingrich and Huntsman. Romney holds a narrower lead over Gingrich on "being a strong leader" (32 to 25 percent), with the other candidates running far behind.
Yet Gingrich bests Romney and the rest of the field on one critical dimension. He holds a 10 point lead over Romney (39 to 29 percent) on "having the knowledge and experience to be a good president."
Which of these issues or characteristics matters most? We asked the Power Outsiders to choose the two they consider most important in guiding their decision about which candidate to support. Not surprisingly, the economy leads the list, with 50 percent choosing it as their first or second choice. But nearly as many selected the ability to beat Obama (42 percent), followed by knowledge and experience (33 percent) and being a strong leader (25 percent).
This week's results hint at a change in perceptions of Herman Cain. Last week, roughly one quarter of the Power Outsiders interviewed either endorsed Cain (3 percent) or said there was a "good chance" they would ultimately support him (24 percent). But this week, Cain never scores better than 14 percent when pitted against the other candidates on specific issues and characteristics.
This survey also comes with an important footnote: Not surprisingly, Romney scores higher on most questions among the 58 Republican activists and officials interviewed in New Hampshire, where he has long held big leads in polls of all voters. Among the New Hampshire respondents, Romney runs far ahead of Gingrich on not just the economy and electability, but also on characteristics such as experience and leadership.
But among the 101 Power Outsiders interviewed in Iowa and South Carolina, Romney's support is far more tenuous. Gingrich leads narrowly on leadership and experience and widely on issues like "Obamacare," foreign policy and immigration. Gingrich's key weakness remains electability, where Romney leads him by nearly 5-to-1 (46 to 10 percent).
Put together, these results explain why Romney won the most support, as of last week, among the Power Outsiders. They perceive him as best on two issues they care most about: the economy and beating Obama.
These findings also underscore why Romney's hold on activist Republicans remains tenuous and why Gingrich may be emerging as an appealing choice, particularly in Iowa and South Carolina. The Power Outsiders agree more often with Gingrich on issues like health care and immigration and, more importantly, see him as the most knowledgeable and experienced candidate in the field. We call them Power Outsiders, but they are really insiders within their communities who are likely to value political experience.
Gingrich is still handicapped by the perception that he would make a weak candidate against Obama. Nothing else unites Republicans as much as their antipathy to the president. As one New Hampshire respondent put it, "beating Obama MUST be the goal. Period."
But the early primary contests sometimes alter perceptions of electability. If a candidate like Gingrich can find a way to win in Iowa or South Carolina, those judgments might change.
The HuffPost-Patch Power Outsiders
Our surveys are not a scientific random sample of any larger population but rather an effort to listen to a swath of influential, local Republican activists, party leaders and elected officials in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. All of the individuals listed below have agreed to participate in the surveys, although not all responded to this week's questions. Interviews were conducted between Nov. 4 and Nov. 8, 2011.
Cory Adams (Story County GOP chair), Leah Adams (Co-Chair, Johnson County Republican Women), Jim Aipperspach (Republican activist), Chad Airhart (Dallas Co. recorder), Skye Alison (Insurance Sales), Roger Anderson (Member, Johnson County GOP Executive Committee), Jeff Angelo (former republican office holder), Shane Blanchard (Waukee City Council), Carmine Boal (Former Congresswoman, now works for governor), Steve Boal (CFO, Accu-Mold), Robert Brownell (Polk County supervisor), Irene Chalmers-Neubauer (Republican precinct captain), Jacob Chapman (President, Dallas County Young Republicans), Andy Christenson (Active Republican), Arleigh Clemens (Co-Chair Johnson County Republicans), Chris Colter (Running for City Council), Creighton Cox (Local politician), Jeremy Davis (Councilman), Tyler DeHaan (Dallas County Young Republicans), Debra Derksen (PR person for Johnson County GOP), Paula Dierenfeld (Johnston Mayor), Mike Elam (Organizer, Dallas County GOP), Jill Ellsworth (Polk County Republicans), Paul Fell (Santorum supporter), Gregory Forbes (story county republican), Amanda Freel (State House Repub Staff), Kathy French (Local politician's wife, active Republican), Paul French (Local politician), Steve Gaer (West Des Moines mayor), Natalie Ginty (Chairwoman, Iowa Federation of College Republicans), E.J. (Polk County Supervisor), Tim Hagle (Iowa University Associate Professor, Political Science), Rick Hermann (Sales Manager, WeatherTech Automotive), Gregory Hudson (blogger), Libby Jacobs (former state representative), Dusty Juhl (Story county central committee), William Keettel (Former head, Johnson County Republicans), Gary Kirke (investor/developer), Kevin Koester (Congressman), Mary Kramer (former state senator), Marilyn Krocheski (Republican Party noteable), Elizabeth Kuennen (story county republican), Jon McAvoy (Head of Dallas County Republicans), Isaiah McGee (Owner, McGee strategies), Chris McLinden (Axis Human Capital, Businessman), Cynthia Michel (Precinct Captain), Randy Munson (Ankeny Chamber of Commerce President), Matt Nolan (Independent Republican, active in community), Mike Nolan (Republican Party notable), Jacqui Norman (Romney leadership volunteer), Scott Raecker (State Legislator), Ben Rittgers (Story County Republican), Will Rogers (Active Republican, businessman), Jim Sandager (West Des Moines city councilman), Rick Sanders (Republican Supervisor), Connie Schmett (Active Republican), Charles Schneider (West Des Moines city councilman), George Sellers (story county republican), Mike St. Clair (Lobbyist), Chad Steenhoek (Member, Strong America Now), Wade Steenhoek (Ankeny City Council), Ronald Stenstrom (Romney Supporter), Karen Svede (Former statewide candidate), Rob Taylor (Running for Iowa House Seat), Deb Thornton (Worked in Republican administrations), Darrow Uhlenhopp (story county republican), Robert White (story county republican), Jack Whitver (State senator), James Wilson (GOP/independent), Eric Woolson (Republican strategist), Randy Yontz (Director Leadership Institute), Paul Zietlow (Co-founder, West Side Conservative Club)
Eric Anderson (Former State Rep/Chair Bow Board of Selectmen), Gary Azarian (Rep-Windham), David Bates (Rep- Windham), Kathy Benuck (BCTV Host/Blogger), D.J. Bettencourt (State Rep., Maj. Leader), Diane Bitter (Rye Republican activist), Travis Blais (Windham GOP Chair), Bill Boyd (Town Councilor), Steve Brennan (Business owner), Bruce Breton (Selectman), Russell Bridle (Former Hampton Fire Department captain/State Rep.), Ed Brooks (Former ME selectman, town councilor), Chris Buck (Republican activist), Chris Buda (Merrimack GOP Chair), Jamie Burnett (Consultant), John Cebrowski (State Rep. - Bedford), Chris Christiansen (State Rep), Mark Cookson (Alderman-at-large), Tim Copeland (State rep.), Jim Costello (American Government teacher), Margaret Crisler (Windham GOP), Juanita Dangel (Secretary Hillsborough County GOP), Gary Daniels (State Rep), Ed Declercq (Planning Board), Jerry Delemus (Republican activist), Shari Demers (Activist), Julie DiCarlo (Small business owner), Ron DiCarlo (Small business owner), Bob Duffy (Nashua GOP City Committee), Bob Elliott (State Rep.), Gary Ellmer (Chairman, Porsmouth Republican Committee), Frank Ferraro (Exeter Selectman), Laura Foote (Activist), Mauri Foster (Retired), Sheila Francoeur (Seacoast Republican Women member), Michael Gallagher (Nashua Republican City Committee, running for Alderman), Bianca Garcia (Former Salem GOP Victory Office mgr), David Garcia (Salem Town GOP Chair), John Graham (State Rep. - Bedford), Brian Griset (Member of local political committee), Lisa Hansen (Romney supporter), Peter Hansen (State Rep), Pat Hargreaves (Selectman), Jeff Hatch (Salem Romney Town Chair), Ken Hawkins (State Rep - Bedford), Dick Hinch (Current State Rep), Jennifer Horn (Republican activist), David Hurst (New Hampshire Young Republicans chairman), Zac Johnson (Technical writer), Ken Jones (Member of Amherst Republicans), Gary Krupp (Member of the School Budget Committee), Steve Landry (Small business owner), Tom Linehan (GOP Activist), Phil LoChiatto (Selectman), Eduardo Lopez-Reyes (Republican Liberty Caucus, National Vice Chair*), Marie Lopez-Reyes (Small business owner*), Di Lothrop (Nashua GOP City Committee), Stephen E. Ludwick (Chairman, Supervisors of the Checklist, Ward 9), Jim Luther (State Senator), John Lyons (Lawyer), Kris MacNeil (Former State Senate candidate), Joel Maiola (Former Judd Gregg Chief of Staff), Andrew Manuse (State Rep - Derry), George Markwell (School Board Member), Harry McClard (Freelance writer), Patrick McDougall (Budget Committee), Charles McMahon (Rep- Windham), Bill Modis (Vice Chair of Amherst Republicans), Maureen Mooney (Past State Rep), Keith Murphy (State Rep - Bedford), Tasha Olsen (Republican activist), Rick Paige (Loan officer), Michele Peckham (State Rep.-N. Hampton), Amy Perkins (State Rep.-Seabrook), Lawrence Perkins (State Rep.-Seabrook), Kathryn Peterson (community activist), Lenette Peterson (State Rep), Pam Price (former state rep), Lee Quandt (State rep.), Matt Quandt (Exeter Selectman/State Rep.), Tom Rath (Consultant), Fred Rice (State Rep. (Hampton)), Jim Rubens (Former Republican State Sen.), Pete Silva (Rep - Nashua), William Smith (Conservative Blogger), Dan St. Hilaire (Executive councilor), Brandon Stauber (Small business owner/recent Exeter transplant), Kathy Stroud (State Rep), Chris Tremblay (Activist), Pam Tucker (Deputy House Speaker), Mark Vincent (Chair of Amherst Republicans), Jim Waddell (State Rep. Hampton), Tom Walker (Conservative Republican), Robert Washburn (Former City Councilor), Kevin Waterhouse (Rep- Windham), Raymond White (State Sen. - Bedford), Alan Williams (North Hampton resident, former Exeter selectman), J. Christopher Williams (Pres. Nashua CC), Tony Zore (Tea Party member)
Aubry Alexander (Charleston City Council - District 9), Thomas Alexander (State Senator), Dean Allen (Tea Party Activist), Charm Altman (President Sea Island Republican Women), Patrick L. Arnold (Campaign and fundraising consultant), Todd Atwater (S.C. Rep. Dist. 87), Rep. Nathan Ballentine (SC House Dist. 71), Bill Banning, Sr. (Vice-chair, Lexington County Council), Bob Barnwell (Richland Co. GOP Spring Valley), Joseph Bates, Jr. (Committeeman/ Richland Co. GOP Dutch Fork), Eric Bedingfield (State Rep/Congressional Staffer), Rick Beltram (Former Spartanburg GOP Chair, Self-quoter), Lin Bennett (Chair, Charleston County GOP), Rich Bolen (Chair, Lexington County GOP), Andrew Boucher (Business consultant and political advisor), Phillip Bowers (Chairman, Pickens County Republican Party), Dan Bracken (President/ The Auction Co. & Real Estate Inc.), Edward Britt (Engineer), Joe Bustos (Former town councilman), Jay Byars (Dorchester County councilman), Bob Call (Berkeley County Councilman), Tim Callanan (Berkeley County GOP Chairman), Earl Capps (Blogger), Ed Carter (Small business owner), Ben Coakley (Investment advisor), Edward Cousar (Executive Director, Black Republican PAC), M. Todd Cullum (Lexington County Council member), Rep. Joe Daning (Statehouse rep.), Smokey Davis (Lexington County Council member), Dana Eiser (Lowcountry 9.12 president), Linda Eiser (9/12 conservative), Scott Farmer (Richland County GOP Committeeman), Chip Felkel (Political Consultant), Will Folks (Editor, fitsnews.com; spokesman for former Gov. Mark Sanford), Leland Glen (Author), Chris Godbey (Political Consultant), Susan Grady (Republican activist), Randy Halfacre (Mayor of Lexington), Dan Hamilton (State Representative), Larry Hargett (Dorchester County Council chairman), Val Hutchinson (Richland County Council), Johnny Jeffcoat (Town of Lexington Economic and Community Catalyst; Lexington County Council member), Jim Jerow (Georgetown GOP Chair), Debbie Jones (9.12 Board Member), Joanne Jones (Republican activist), Grayson Kelly (Fundraiser), James Kinard (Banker, Chair, Lexington County Council), Todd Kincannon (Lawyer/former executive director of SC Republican Party), Bob Kouvolo (President/ MaxPt), Mickey Lindler (Chairwoman for Republicans of Lexington and Richland Counties), Chris Mann (City Councilman), Karen Martin (Organizer/Spartanburg Tea Party), Larry Martin (State Senator), Taft Matney (Conservative Political Consultant), James Metts (Lexington County Sheriff), Matt Moore (Executive Director for SC GOP), Susan Morris (Nonprofit executive director), Mike Murphee (Charleston Tea Party chairman), Deborah Myers (Political activist), Brent Nelsen (Professor of Political Science/former candidate for Supt. of Education), Don Nye (Bank employee), Allen Olson (Former Chairman of Columbia TEA Party), Walt Owens (University Professor), Randy Page (President,South Carolinians for Responsible Government), Gregory Pearce (Richland Co. Councilman), Kathy Perry (Charleston County Republican Women), Adam Piper (SC GOP 3rd Vice Chairman & political director for Huntsman campaign), Zach Pippin (GOP Media Consultant), Barbara Pulicicchio (Political activist), Rick Quinn (S.C. Rep. Dist. 69), Jeff Reuer (Vice Chair Goose Creek 9-12), DeLinda Ridings (SC GOP State Secretary / Huntsman campaign), Robby Robbins (Lawyer), Emily Rudolph (Sea Island Republican Women), LaDonna Ryggs (Spartanburg GOP Chair), Michael Sally (Hanahan City Councilman), Dennis Saylor (Chair, Aiken GOP), Bill Severns (Rep. for Beaufort Republican Men), Lanneau Siegling (State Executive Committeeman), Billy Simons (Conservative activist), Garry Smith (State Rep), John Steinberger (Fair Tax activist), Mary Ann Taylor (Charleston County Republican Women/Charleston County School Board), MacLain R. "Mac" Toole (S.C. Rep., Dist. 88), Frank Townsend (Lexington County Council member), September Wellborn (State GOP Delegate), Jennifer Willis (County Councilwoman/ V.P. One Tree Hill), Henry Wilson (2011 delegate, S.C. Republican Convention), Cheryl Woods-Flowers (Former mayor, Republican official), James David Woodard (Professor of Political Science, Clemson University)
Ed Blommel (Candidate for Pasco Tax Collector), Guyann Bracken-Fay (Liberty School member), Kathy Brown (FishHawk Republican Club member, 912 activist), Sharon Calvert (Tampa Tea Party organizer), Courtney Clem (FishHawk Republican Club Secretary, college student), Kelly Clem-Rickon (FishHawk Republican Club VP), John B Conneely (Delegate to the Presidency 5 convention and straw vote in Orlando), Anne Corona (West Pasco Republican Club President), John Costig (Brandon912 Leader), Deborah Cox Roush (Hillsborough County Republican Party chair), Vic Crawford (Brandon912 member), Clif Curry (Brandon Republican Club member), Scott Cutler (Brandon912 member), State Sen. Mike Fasano (Senator), Stacy Feiler (Activist; Liberty Tree Consulting), Coni Ferguson (912 member), Gym Fish, Sandra Graves (Co-vice president of the Republican Club of Pasco), Steve Graves (Co-vice president of the Republican Club of Pasco), Julia Hassler (Club Politico President), Al Higginbotham (Hillsborough County Commission Chair), Dawn Hudson (Republican), Joanne Hurley (Pasco school board chair), David Jolley, Susan Kiser (Registered Republican voter), Shari Kotsch (West Pasco Republican), Eileen LaBorde (912 member), Casey Mattox (Central Pasco Republican), Diana Mattox (Central Pasco Republican), Rachel O' Connor (Pasco county commission candidate), Wayne Pickard (912 member), State Rep. Richard Corcoran (State Rep), David Rowan (Central Pasco Republican), Christopher Shalosky (Fishhawk Republican Club President), Sid Talsma (Central Pasco Republican), Jenah Victor, Todd Wall (Central Pasco Republican), Sam Ward (Central Pasco Republican), Gene Webb, Patrick Weightman (Central Pasco Republican), Shirley Wood (Pinecrest912 leader)