It’s an article of faith among many Republicans that Mitt Romney is the most electable candidate in the GOP field. But it’s not clear that this assertion is actually true. In fact, if one were going to design a Republican opponent tailor-made to President Obama’s liking, that opponent would be uniquely vulnerable to Obama’s main rhetorical thrust (making class-warfare arguments), uniquely unsuited to take clear aim at Obama’s least popular action as president (spearheading the passage of Obamacare), and uniquely strong in states that are unlikely to matter in the general election race. In all three of these ways, Romney is made to order for Obama — while his chief rival, Newt Gingrich, is not.
None of this is to question Romney’s potential appeal to moderate voters. Nor is it to deny that Gingrich has more baggage and would be easier for Obama to try to vilify as a “conservative extremist.” But there is more to winning over moderates than simply running the most moderate candidate, and the truth is that no one really knows whether Romney or Gingrich would pose a more powerful electoral challenge to Obama.
Current polls do indeed show Romney faring better than Gingrich versus Obama, but these polls tell us very little about how things would actually play out in November. Gingrich has faced far fiercer attacks to date — both from the Washington establishment and from his rivals (who are all jockeying to become Romney’s leading competitor, rather than generally taking direct aim at Romney himself) — than Romney has. But that would change quickly if Romney were actually to become the nominee. Moreover, in a general election campaign, the financial advantage that has afforded Romney the luxury of pummeling Gingrich with negative ads in Iowa would disappear. Romney would then face the war chest of Obama, while Gingrich (if he were to become the nominee) would actually acquire a war chest, something he now lacks. So the polls don’t convey much at all about what would happen ten months from now.
Besides, there is more to gauging a general election race than merely looking at nationwide polls. When contemplating the places on the map where Romney would provide the GOP with the greatest electoral advantages, the answer would seem to be in the Northeast and on the Pacific Coast. But none of the states in those regions, save New Hampshire, would be up for grabs in a close race. Instead, Romney would merely succeed in helping the party lose the likes of California, Oregon, Washington, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, by more respectable margins.
In fact, because of the nature of the electoral map this time around, the key to victory won’t be whether Republicans can win in Democratic territory but whether Obama can, once again, win in Republican territory. In that vein, the election will likely come down to whether the Republican nominee can hold three mildly GOP-leaning states: Florida, Ohio, and Virginia. If the Republican nominee wins these (and if other states go according to form), then Obama would have to sweep New Hampshire, Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania to win, which he isn’t likely to do.
On the other hand, if the Republican nominee loses even one of these three key states, then the advantage would tilt to Obama. And if the state that’s lost is either Florida or Ohio (and especially if it’s Florida), the GOP nominee would essentially have to win Pennsylvania. The problem is that, in presidential elections dating back to 1960, Pennsylvania has always been less favorable to the GOP than Ohio has been, and it’s been less favorable than Florida in 12 of the 13 elections over that span (with the success of Georgia’s Jimmy Carter’s in Florida versus Michigan’s Gerald Ford being the only exception). In other words, the Republican nominee simply cannot afford to lose Florida or Ohio, and probably cannot afford to lose Virginia.
The fact that Gingrich is from neighboring Georgia, as opposed to Massachusetts, would presumably help him in Florida, as would his demonstrated strength among senior citizens. (Gingrich is from the Silent Generation and is four years older than Romney, who is a Baby Boomer.) Gingrich’s being from Georgia, as well as currently living in Virginia, would also presumably help him in the Old Dominion. Moreover, a GOP candidate who loses in Virginia would also be in danger of losing North Carolina — which would essentially seal that nominee’s fate — so it’s an added advantage that Georgia borders the Tar Heel State.
As to whether Gingrich or Romney seems more like — and might seem more appealing to — the typical working-class independent voter who will probably swing the election in Ohio, readers will have to decide for themselves. To me, Ohio seems more like Gingrich country, and it would seem that way even if Ohio voters hadn’t recently rejected an individual mandate to buy health insurance like the one that Romney still stands by in Massachusetts — and even if that rejection hadn’t been unanimous across all 88 of Ohio’s counties. Obama’s class-warfare strategy seems designed to play well in Ohio, and — partly because of this — it would seem to be a place where it’s particularly important to talk early and often about Obamacare. Thus, in addition to his regional advantages in Florida and Virginia, Gingrich might well pose a more formidable challenge to Obama than Romney would in the Buckeye State — which Republicans have won every time they have ever won the presidency.