Newt Gingrich has told voters in South Carolina not to vote for Rick Santorum because Santorum can’t defeat either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama. In particular, Gingrich made an appeal to conservatives: “If you're a conservative, just look at the polls. I am the only candidate capable of stopping a moderate from winning the nomination.” Indeed, Gingrich claimed, “If you vote for Sen. Santorum, in effect you’re voting for Gov. Romney to be the nominee because he's not going to beat him. And the only way you can stop Gov. Romney for all practical purposes is to vote for Gingrich. That's just a fact and it's a mathematical fact now.”
Well, here's a fact, indeed a mathematical fact: In the first actual vote held this year, Rick Santorum came from behind to double Newt Gingrich's vote in Iowa, and then in New Hampshire, Santorum fought Gingrich to a draw. It's pretty nervy—even by Newtonian standards!—for Gingrich to say that mathematics requires voters to abandon Santorum for Gingrich.
As for the polls: In national polls among Republicans, Santorum ties Gingrich. In South Carolina, Gingrich (from neighboring Georgia) is, it's true, ahead of Santorum—by single digits. But if we’re looking at polls (as Gingrich urges we do), there’s one important set of numbers conservatives need to keep in mind.
Two national polls conducted in the last few days, by CNN and Fox, asked the core question of whether voters had a favorable or unfavorable view of the candidates. Romney is at 43 percent favorable to 42 percent unfavorable in one poll, and 45 percent favorable to 38 percent unfavorable in the other, giving him an average of a +4 percent favorability. President Obama is at 49 percent favorable to 49 percent unfavorable and 51 percent to 46 percent, for a +2.5 percent average. Santorum isn't far behind, with numbers that would put him within striking distance in a fall campaign, especially given that he's still less well known: He's at 31 percent favorable to 34 percent unfavorable, and 31 percent to 36 percent, for an average of -4 percent.
So, there are three candidates at +4 percent, +2.5 percent, and -4 percent, all well within competitive bounds of one another. Newt Gingrich? He's at 28 percent favorable to 58 percent unfavorable in one poll, 27 percent to 56 percent in the other—averaging -29.5 percent. Yes, -29.5 percent.
Newt Gingrich should never be underestimated. Perhaps he could even recover from a -29.5 percent unfavorability rating. But it’s quite a stretch for Gingrich to claim that he has an obviously better chance to win than Rick Santorum, either against Mitt Romney or Barack Obama.