Newt’s ideas could hurt Republicans

On Tuesday, Newt Gingrich and his American Solutions project released a flood of polling data collected this past summer by six respected Republican polling firms. One Newt insider intimated that the polling represents $400,000 worth of research. That seems like a stretch, but the roster of pollsters and firms participating is genuinely top-drawer.

The project’s several reports suggest that the results provide insights on issues that are generally overlooked by other Republican or even Democratic researchers. Gingrich even takes a direct shot at GOP operatives, denigrating the party as wedded to a “consultant-dominated system which makes it incapable of effectively implementing the will of the people.”

But readers looking for strikingly new or extraordinarily revealing insights into American public opinion will be mostly disappointed if they invest the time required to wade through the hundreds of pages of PowerPoint presentations. There is far more typically Gingrich-style hype and hyperbole than genuine substance here.

There are, however, two unique attributes of the project. First, each of the six surveys focuses on identifying valences, value statements or prevailing attitudes that enjoy near-universal endorsement. This is indeed novel. Few people can afford to do polls confirming the conventional. Second, one version of the report uses an original style to present results. Eschewing run-of-the-mill tables, pie graphs and bar charts, the results are repeatedly presented as a pair of circles. A large circle represents the valence that everyone agrees upon, and a proportionately smaller circle  represents the opinions of the “outliers” who have not yet succumbed to American consensus.

The presenter who walked me through the data explicitly stated that the former Speaker encourages Republican candidates to “get to the ‘big circles,’ ” the valences or consensual values that enjoy near-universal support. Or at least seem to. It’s this proposed application of the data that gives me the greatest pause. If Republicans blindly followed Gingrich’s recommendation, they could get blindsided.

Let’s look at one “value proposition” championed in the study as a “big circle” winner. The pollster asked, “Do you support or oppose the idea of changing the way the government operates by bringing in ideas and systems currently employed in the private business sector?” Gingrich offers this businesslike strategy for governance as a near-universal winner, supported by 74 percent of all Americans. More importantly, the report emphasizes that more than 70 percent of every partisan persuasion, including Democrats and independents, joins in supporting this value.

A naïve Republican legislator might believe that this opens the way to all sorts of privatization and public management policy initiatives that could wreck a candidacy. There are two problems here. First, the importance of intensity is overlooked. While 74 percent bite on the idea, only 38 percent do so strongly. This is acknowledged in a small footnote, but no accompanying narrative explains the crucial nature of this detail.

Second, the general principle is too easily undermined by application. What if profit-seeking businesses close American-based call centers and shift the work to lower-cost operations in India? Is that one of the “ideas and systems currently employed in the private business sector” that there is consensus to bring to government? I think not.

Gingrich’s reports merit warning labels.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.