Trying to Understand Newt’s Appeal

Musing about his smarts.

Writing about how to know Newt Gingrich appears to correlate with not liking him very much (i.e., “The bottom line is that people who have been paying rapt attention to American politics since at least 1994 simply don’t like Newt Gingrich very much”), James Joyner wrote:

And, in contrast to previous frontrunners Rick Perry and Herman Cain, his ability to speak in paragraphs makes him seem positively brilliant.

This gets to something that I have been thinking about for a little while now:  I wonder how much of the support for Gingrich is founded in the fact that many in the GOP are being tired of being told how stupid their candidates are.  We have seen a frontrunner who reveled in his his ignorance (Herman Cain) and others who displayed it with some frequency (Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry) and the result was a great deal of ridicule.  Further, Republicans have been told that they are anti-science, anti-facts, and, indeed, anti-reality.  Newt, on the other hand, at least sounds smart and he talks about books and stuff.

Indeed, one can hardly get through a story on Gingrich without being told how smart he is or how he has so many ideas in a a given day that he has to carry a sack around so he has a place to put all the extra ones.  And I am not talking just about positive stories supporting Gingrich, I means pretty much every single story points out his smarts, his ideas, his doctorate, or his time as a professor.

At any rate, I have no way of testing this proposition at the moment, and we may or may not ever get adequate polling to answer the question, but I do have to wonder how much this is playing into his appeal at the moment.   The idea that voters have decided to shift towards a candidate who sounds smart is a positive sign, I should think (at least when compared to other options).

An example of the coverage of Newt can be found in a WaPo piece from yesterday:  Newt Gingrich: The GOP’s eccentric big thinker and bomb-thrower.  Heck, the first line of the piece is: “He’s the smart one.”

An early paragraph captures what strikes me as a great summary of the Newtness:

To some, a lifetime of hearing how smart he is has produced in Gingrich an ungovernable ego, colossal even by Washington standards. To others, it’s just biography. He vacuums information, and always has.

Also, I found the following of interest:

“He was sort of universally considered a character at West Georgia, smart but not very deep,” said New Republic columnist Ed Kilgore, a Georgia Republican-turned-Democrat who has known Gingrich for decades. “He clearly loved the professor’s persona and grand ideas, but he was more nakedly ambitious than anything. You always had this odd combination of Boss Tweed and Metternich.”

I think that “smart but not very deep” very much describes Newt if one really pays attention to what he says (especially if one thinks through some of his vaunted ideas).  Further, this much appears quite clear:  “He clearly loved the professor’s persona” insofar as he really never did the hard work needed to maintain the non-persona part (i.e.,no scholarly pubs that I can find and no tenure) but he has held on to the notion that he is a “historian” (even when doing lobbying work) and loves the professorial approach (i.e., lecturing, pontificating, tossing ideas out for consideration, etc.).

I will say this:  while I find Newt problematic for a variety of reasons, I do prefer the ideas approach (even in its undisciplined and chaotic) to the “oops” approach (Perry) or the “Uzbeki-beki-stan-stan” approach (Cain).

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, US Politics, , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Fiona says:

    I don’t find Newt to be “smart” in any other than a surface sense; that is, he knows a lot of big words and can string them together in complete, albeit often semi-coherent, sentences. If that’s the criteria, then sure Newt is smart, but so are Romney, Huntsman, and Paul (all of whom are likely a whole lot smarter than Newt). The difference is that Newt freely advertises his “smarts” by referring to himself as a historian and constantly mentioning various books that he’s allegedly written.

    What primarily sets Newt off from the pack is his talent for vitriol and his ability to express all that pent-up right wing anger in nasty but neat soundbites. He’s the Republican id set loose. The key to his appeal lays in his unbridled instinct to go for the jugular, not in his intelligence, such as it is.

  2. mattb says:

    From my informal ethnographic research, is the three part Newt formula

    Public Reason
    (1) “Smartness” seems to be the icing on the cake. It’s the thing that can most openly be talked about (and eventually connected to the third point). And as you say, it provides a chance to counter the current meme. The issue though is that you had three other smart/wonky people in this race (Romney, Paul, and Hunstman), but their intelligence has never been fore-fronted.


    Semi Public Reason
    (2) “History of moving government to the Right” — for folks like our own Eric, this is the critical thing that allows every sin to be forgiven (or at least ignored). Twenty years ago, Gingrich led a shift in government. Whether or not it was successful in the long term doesn’t matter. If you take it on faith that the only correct direction is towards the right, and you’re particularly militant about this, then you support Gingrich’s by any means necessary approach.


    Private Reason
    (3) Anger/Aggression (muscular republicanism) — Gingrich (like Cain before him) is imagined as a fighter. The belief is that this trait + Smartness will allow him to beat Obama in a debate (and the description of these imagined debates sounds more like a fist fight than mental battle). This ties into the idea that Gingrich has the spine to “criticize” Obama (and I’ve come to realize that criticize is short hand for WND/TalkRadio/FoxNews attacks on the man). This quality is something that Romney especially seems to lack.

    The thing about all of this is it explains why Tea Partiers seem to be shifting support to Gingrich. If you believe like many of us do that beyond being a re-branding effort for disenfranchised Republicans, the real driver of the tea party was anger at compromise rather than fiscal conservatism, then Newt becomes the perfect candidate for them (as opposed to Ron Paul or even a Huntsman, who have far more conservative fiscal policies and records).

  3. mattb says:

    Sigh… that first sentence should have read:

    From my informal ethnographic research, “smartness” is the public part of the three parts of Newt’s support…

  4. MBunge says:

    “If that’s the criteria, then sure Newt is smart, but so are Romney, Huntsman, and Paul”

    I might give you Huntsman and it’s hard to tell with Paul because he’s so wrapped up in his, shall we say, nonconventional preoccupations. Newt, however, is clearly smarter than Romney.


  5. alkali says:

    It’s useful to keep in mind that this stuff is all relative. A .200 hitter on a major league team would be a monster hitter in your softball league. Likewise, Hillary Clinton — who sometimes is criticized for being “cold” in her public appearances — would be by far the most charismatic person at your office Christmas party. I don’t think Rick Perry is dumb — he isn’t — but it’s one thing to be intelligent and another thing to be intelligent and to convey that on television.

    Gingrich is not smarter than Romney. Gingrich is just way better at being on television.

    I voted for Obama, and will do so again, but I don’t dispute that Romney is clearly as smart as Obama is, and he could well be smarter. Obama has a much better sense of people.

  6. Peter says:

    In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

  7. Steve says:

    Gingrich is popular because of the anger and hate he spews. He is talk radio on stage.


  8. MBunge says:

    @alkali: “I don’t dispute that Romney is clearly as smart as Obama is, and he could well be smarter.”

    Romney’s not a moron, but what evidence is there that’s he’s smarter than the average bear? Surely in the wake of 2008, people don’t still think intelligence is really all that important in business success?


  9. alkali says:

    Romney was cum laude (top 1/3) at Harvard Law and a Baker Scholar (top 5%) at Harvard Business. He started Bain Capital in his 30s. He could clearly be CEO of any company in the US and — if he were liberated from the dreams of electoral politics — he might have been an excellent Treasury Secretary or chair of the Federal Reserve. He’s extremely impressive.

    That said, he has a limited understanding of what the world is like if you are not a straight-A student from a wealthy family, and it shows. He doesn’t understand what it’s like to be unexpectedly pregnant, to be robbed after cashing your paycheck, to live next to a factory smokestack, or to have a brother-in-law that won’t look for work — the life events that stir passions on the left and the right. He’s faking it as best he can.

  10. Rob in CT says:

    I think that’s right, alkali. That, plus a burning ambition to be POTUS for whatever reason = Mitt Romney (PanderBot3000).

    You can be really smart but totally unself-aware and empathy-deficient. That doesn’t even make you a horrible person or anything, though it might make you a poor President.

    As for Gingrich – it’s the idea that he’s a fighter, that he won in the 90s against the hated Clinton (Clinton has acquired a bit of a halo over time with centrists, but I bet the GOP base still hates him with a passion), and that he’s not obviously dumb. Therefore he’ll totally crush that moron-pretending-to-be-smart Obama. Or something like that.

  11. OzarkHillbilly says:



  12. alkali says:

    @Rob in CT: You can be really smart but totally unself-aware and empathy-deficient.

    True. I’d add that I don’t think Romney is deeply empathy-deficient — he’s not an automaton — but he just doesn’t have that quality at the level he needs to be passionate about issues that don’t personally affect him and his family.