Are GOP voters fooling themselves about Newt Gingrich's electability?

Polling indicates that GOP voters believe Newt Gingrich could beat President Obama. But surveys of the full electorate show less confidence in Mr. Gingrich's ability to defeat the president.

Elise Amendola/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich gestures during a campaign stop at Insight Technology in Londonderry, N.H. on Monday.

We have a new batch of polls to peruse on Wednesday, and first off we’ll say that there are some indications that Newt Gingrich is doing better than any GOP presidential candidate has yet this political cycle. The former speaker of the House is the choice of 40 percent of Republican voters in a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, for instance. That’s the highest such number that any of the party’s White House hopefuls have scored in 2011.

It’s possible that the Newt phenomenon has peaked, however. A Gallup tracking poll – which wrapped up on Monday, one day later than the NBC survey – documents a slip in Mr. Gingrich’s numbers. Gallup has him as the choice of 31 percent of Republicans, down from 37 percent last week.

But here’s the thing about these polls that’s perhaps most intriguing: When it comes to Gingrich’s perceived electability, are GOP voters fooling themselves? Or are they fooling themselves at least in regards to how the political standings are at the moment?

Just look at Gallup’s results. Asked which party front-runner has the best chance of beating Barack Obama, 44 percent of Republican respondents picked Gingrich. Only 40 percent picked Mitt Romney.

That’s pretty close, so you can’t say that the Republican electorate clearly believes Gingrich is the superior general-election candidate. But party voters appear to at least put him in Mr. Romney’s electability category, or slightly above.

The full US electorate has a different take on this at the moment, though. And the full electorate will be going to the polls in November 2012.

A Dec. 6-7 USA Today/Gallup survey of all voters has Mr. Obama beating Gingrich in a head-to-head matchup, 50 to 44 percent. The same poll lists a head-to-head contest between Obama and Romney as a tie.

Results from the aforementioned NBC/WSJ poll show even wider margins on similar questions. Obama leads Gingrich by 11 points among registered voters in the NBC survey – 51 to 40 percent. The incumbent leads Romney by only two points, 47 to 45 percent.

Here’s the real slam: Pit Obama against a generic GOP candidate, and he falls behind. Forty-five percent of respondents in the NBC poll said they’d vote for a Republican in general, as opposed to 43 percent for the current president. What does this mean? It may mean that America is predisposed to a change in the White House in the abstract, but the reality of the current GOP front-runners gives voters second thoughts.

The Republican establishment in Washington is fully aware of the implication of these numbers. This is one reason that pundits continue to say that it is possible, albeit improbable, that a brokered convention could pick someone else as the GOP nominee – or that somebody else could yet get into the race.

“I think there is a small but nontrivial chance that the Republican nominee could be someone like Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan, Mitch Daniels, Tim Pawlenty or Chris Christie,” wrote New York Times polling analyst Nate Silver on his FiveThirtyEight blog earlier this week.

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