Mitt should woo Newt voters now

Last night should have signaled to Newt Gingrich that his campaign is doomed. Because this was written before the last votes were counted and before he could formally react to the spanking he took, I cannot predict the former Speaker’s actual reaction. It won’t surprise me, however, if he soldiers on. 

That might work for him, but most voters aren’t soldiers in this day and age of the all-volunteer Army, so I’d imagine that some of his shocked devotees are already sobering up and looking around for better prospects. 

In the weeks ahead, it’s crucial that Mitt Romney begin to woo Gingrich enthusiasts, commencing the crucial process of bridging whatever rifts have occurred. This should start with a solid understanding of Newt’s followers.

For one thing, Mitt needs to take into account that Newt voters are, by and large, pessimists about pretty much everything. If you ask Newt’s backers whether things in the nation today are headed in the right direction, or seriously off on the wrong track, they will choose the second option far more often than will steadfast Romney voters. 

There are multiple reasons for the downbeat spirit of Newt’s following. For one thing, they are generally less affluent and more likely to be personally confronting unpleasant consequences of the recession, like lost retirements, unemployment, underemployment, unemployed kids, lack of health insurance, upside-down mortgages and so forth. 

Yes, some Romneyites face some of these realities, too, but not nearly so frequently as do Newtonians. So, if I poll Newt backers about whether they will be better off a year from now, worse off or about the same, a strong majority will anticipate no improvement. They just cannot envision it getting better, which calls into question whether they really think Newt will win. If he’s going to prevail, won’t things be getting better? They aren’t feeling it.

But the angst of the Gingrich gang is not simply economic. They are also likely to be more unenthusiastic about a lot of other things, particularly government and politicians. They also have more loathing for our party and its leaders. They are convinced that no one except Newt is a good enough debater, will set up the proper comparisons and contrasts with President Obama and has the intellectual firepower to mastermind a win over an incumbent president.

Weirdly, though, despite their angst about government and politicians, Gingrich’s fans swoon whenever he lists all the government plans and programs that populate his big-ideas platform and promises. 

Take the buildup of the space program. It doesn’t seem to dawn on his devotees that this boondoggle would just turn NASA into an ever-larger bureaucracy, even if all the private investment he predicts comes to pass. 

If you look at all that Newt envisions across the full range of government activities, it would be almost New Dealish to achieve his dreams. So Romney better not expect to always find consistency in his dealings with Gingrich converts.

Mostly, it’s important for Romney to offer a sop to the anger and resentment that Gingrich backers harbor. They will like a meaner and more strident Mitt than they have sometimes seen. 

A good starting point might be Mitt’s harsher position toward China’s economic policies. Romney seems ready to mix it up with China over issues like currency. That’s good. It feels strong. It might also be useful for Romney to be tough on the worst offenders that sparked the financial crisis, the truly bad actors. This would resonate with Gingrich voters and stave off some of the benefit that President Obama will get with his new commission. 

Romney cannot simply replace Newt’s pessimism with a sunny outlook, but he can present an aspirational agenda that appeals to the disaffected once wed to Gingrich.

David Hill is a pollster who has worked for Republican campaigns and causes since 1984.