Friday, June 3, 2011

Gingrich Polls in Context

Newt Gingrich's poll numbers are down. But Gingrich has had a remarkably consequential career in spite of bad poll numbers. Shortly after his resignation from the House in 1998, Gallup reported:

Newt Gingrich moved into the national consciousness as the leader of the successful Republican effort to gain control of the House of Representatives in 1994. Gallup's first measure of the public's impression of Gingrich came in October of that year, immediately before the historic November election. At that point, even though almost six out of ten Americans had no opinion at all of the Georgia Congressman, his image was already slightly more negative than positive.

Immediately after the Republicans' election success – and for the only time in 18 different measures of his image since that time – Gingrich's image tilted positive. In a November 1994 poll, 29% of the public had a favorable opinion of Gingrich and 25% had a negative opinion. By December of that same year, however, his image had moved back into negative territory. It has remained more negative than positive ever since.

The public appeared to turn particularly strongly against the Speaker after his budget confrontation with Bill Clinton and the resulting U.S. Government shutdown in late 1995. (Publicity at the time, including a famous front page caricature in the New York Daily News, included the allegation that Gingrich had closed down the government because he was given a bad seat at the back of Air Force One when returning from the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin in Israel.) By January of 1996, 57% of Americans said that their image of Gingrich was unfavorable, compared with 37% who had a favorable image of him. This nearly two-to-one negative-to-positive image ratio persisted throughout most of 1996 and 1997.

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Although Gingrich's image dipped in a June Gallup poll, by October – the last measure before the elections – he had a partially rehabilitated image, with 42% of the public giving him a favorable image rating, and 49% unfavorable. Thus, there was some evidence that Gingrich was on the way back up in the minds of the public – but these measures were taken before the outcome of the November 3rd election, the subsequent criticism Gingrich and other Republican leaders took as a result, and his eventual resignation last week.

Because of his unpopularity, his opponents' spots frequently featured him. In 1996, Brooks Jackson reported at CNN:

They call it "Medi-Scare." It's the tactic of frightening the elderly by claiming Republicans plan to destroy Medicare. And the latest television advertisement from the AFL-CIO is a case in point. In it, a narrator says, "When you're older, and you're sick, Medicare is more than health care, it's peace of mind." Then, the spot cuts to House Speaker Newt Gingrich delivering a speech to Blue Cross on October 24, 1995: "Now we don't get rid of it in round one because we think that's politically smart and we don't think that's the right way to go through a transition. But we believe it's going to wither on the vine."

That's just dishonest. What Gingrich really said was that the Republicans believed the Medicare bureaucracy would wither on the vine -- not Medicare benefits.

Here's the full quote: "What do you think the health care financing administration is?" Gingrich asked. "It's a centralized command bureaucracy. It's everything we're telling Boris Yeltsin to get rid of. Now we don't get rid of it in round one because we don't think that's politically smart and we don't think that's the right way to go through a transition. But we believe it's going to wither on the vine because we think people are going to voluntarily leave it. Voluntarily."

The Democratic National Committee ran a similar ad:

And the Clinton campaign also tied Dole to Gingrich: