Who Would Obama Rather Run Against: Mitt or Newt?

Conventional wisdom says the Republican presidential nomination will go to Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich. This could change – don’t be surprised if it changes more than once. But suppose conventional wisdom proves correct. If you were Barack Obama, which would you rather run against?

A follower of polls might say, “Of course Obama wants to run against Gingrich.” An Obama-Gingrich race could end with a walkover for the incumbent, as happened in LBJ-Goldwater of 1964 and Nixon-McGovern of 1972.

Gingrich, some thinking goes, has a borderline personality. His past is full of strange diatribes on a weird range of subjects. As Ronald Reagan sometimes confused movies with reality, Gingrich confuses science fiction novels with reality. He threw a temper tantrum about his seat on Air Force One. Hardly anyone likes him personally. He was a transparent opportunist with Fannie and Freddie, organizations that voters hate. Gingrich is proficient at bloviating, and the one time in his life he held actual responsibility as Speaker of the House he did a terrible job. Would you trust the nation’s budget to a man who ran a $1 million tab at Tiffany?

Gingrich hectors others about their personal lives, while presenting himself as a champion of traditional values. Yet he admits betraying not one but two wives. Some kind of new low in politics was achieved when Gingrich formally pledged to stop committing adultery. Gingrich wears the letter H — for hypocrite — around his neck as Hester Prynne wore an A around hers in The Scarlet Letter.

These are sound reasons why Obama might prefer to face Newt. They are reasons the Republican National Committee is said to be feeling panicky about a Gingrich candidacy. Newt has the potential to lose by a spectacular margin, dragging Republican Senate and House candidates down with him. The Republican establishment has not forgotten how much damage he did to the GOP during his administration of the House. Run against a guy even your opponents despise? Sounds promising.

But, as you’ve probably guessed by now, there is a but.

Gingrich is a wild card. He probably would end up a flaming wreckage in electoral terms, but there’s a chance he could become seen as the man unafraid to bring sweeping change to an ossified Washington, D.C. There’s perhaps a 90 percent likelihood Obama would wipe the floor with Gingrich, versus a 10 percent likelihood Gingrich would stage an historic upset. In game theory terms, this invokes the minimax problem – should Obama maximize his chance of a huge victory or minimize his chance of a stinging defeat?

We must take into consideration that Gingrich can be vicious. He viciously denounced Bill Clinton and demanded his impeachment for having an affair, all the while, as we now know, Newt was busy cheating on his own wife. This shows Gingrich will say anything in order to serve himself. Of all GOP contenders, Gingrich seems the only one who might stoop to appealing to the very worst aspects of the American character — if he thought he would personally benefit.

Now consider Mitt Romney. He is perceived as being more appealing to independents than Gingrich. Romney possesses an air of maturity and reasonableness, qualities Gingrich sorely lacks. Also unlike Gingrich, Romney has been a success as an executive — running private businesses, the Olympics and the state of Massachusetts. There seems little chance Romney will stage a campaign that melts down and simply hands a reelection to Obama, which Gingrich might do. Because he is perceived as admirable, Mitt could help Republicans pick up House and Senate seats, even if they miss the White House.

Overall, in most respects, Romney is a significantly more formidable opponent than Gingrich. Yet there are reasons the president might prefer to run against Mitt.

His Latter-Day Saints faith could be a negative — one Obama need not even mention. Evangelicals normally turn out for Republican candidates, but they may be put off by the longstanding question of whether Mormons are Christians. As a churchgoer myself, I think Mormons have the same claim to be followers of Christ as anyone else does. But then I belong to an eccentric joint Christian-Jewish congregation that takes a broad view of spirituality. Many traditional Christians, however, are suspicious of the Mormon denomination. This could knock a couple of points off a Romney vote without the president having to do or say anything.

Romney’s other powerful negative is his background in private equity. Right now “Wall Street” is an expletive, and Romney is Wall Street up one side and down the other. His years running Bain Capital will be described in campaign advertising as vulture capitalism – corporate raiding, followed by layoffs and outsourcing with huge profits for wealthy insiders and average people out of work.

That may not be a fair charge, but it is a powerful one, with which Obama could pillory Romney. There is a clear political playbook to use against Romney.

This especially matters to the youth-vote/youth-volunteer equation. The young voters who enthusiastically supported Obama in 2008 now seem more turned off by him. But if 2012 pits Obama versus Mr. One Percent, young voters might get excited again. Obama would be offering them a chance to defeat Wall Street, at least symbolically.

Whatever other failings he may have, Romney has always comported himself with dignity. An Obama-Romney contest would be the kind of decorous, high-minded campaign at which the president excels. In an Obama-Gingrich race, practically anything could happen.

So forget the polls. If I am Barack Obama, I want to run against Mitt Romney.

[Cross-posted at Reuters.com]

Gregg Easterbrook

Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly and the Atlantic. He's also a columnist for ESPN.com.