Influential local Republicans in Iowa and the early primary states see Newt Gingrich as exceptionally intelligent and experienced, which explains his emerging appeal. But the latest Power Outsiders survey also reveals that nagging doubts about Gingrich's character and electability may limit his rise.
The weekly GOP Power Outsiders poll, conducted by The Huffington Post and Patch, reaches out to local Republican 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 154 Power Outsiders, including 45 in Iowa, 42 in New Hampshire, 52 in South Carolina and 15 in Florida.
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Gingrich's intellect, on regular display in a series of nationally televised candidate debates, stands out as the core of his appeal. We asked respondents for one word to describe Gingrich, and their answers were overwhelmingly positive (70 percent), with the list dominated by "intelligent," "smart," "brilliant" and "knowledgeable." In fact, synonyms describing intelligence accounted for 41 percent of all responses.
Another 16 percent answered with words that were either descriptive or not obviously positive or negative, and many of these touched on the same theme, such as "intellectual," "professor" and "historian." Just 14 percent used negative words to describe Gingrich, such as "arrogant," "old" and "baggage."
Answering a set of more specific questions about Gingrich, the local Republican activists were nearly unanimous in describing him as having "the knowledge and experience necessary to make a good president" (96 percent). Almost as many (94 percent) said he "takes stands on issues you agree with," and four out of five (80 percent) said he has "the personality and temperament necessary to make a good president."
However, the variation in intensity of opinion behind these answers begins to demonstrate the limits of Gingrich's appeal. While a remarkable three out of four (75 percent) felt strongly that Gingrich has presidential knowledge and experience (saying the phrase describes him "very well"), just 40 percent felt strongly that he has a presidential personality and temperament.
While a majority (67 percent) described Gingrich as someone who "can beat Barack Obama in the general election," nearly one-third (31 percent) did not. Compare this result to those for other candidates on previous Power Outsider surveys. As the chart below shows, these local Republicans see Gingrich as a more viable general-election candidate than Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul, but less electable than Mitt Romney, Chris Christie, Rick Perry and Herman Cain (although we asked about the latter two at the peaks of their respective popularity earlier in the campaign).
Why are so many still on the fence? We asked the 42 percent who said there is just "some chance" they might support Gingrich what he could do to win their support, and no single response dominated. But on that question and a final request for open-ended comments, slightly better than one-third of the 42 percent (or 14 percent overall) made some reference to Gingrich's personal "baggage" or what one called his "reputation as a husband."
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. For more details, including a full list of participants, click here.