On Wednesday, for the first time since Herman Cain's presidential candidacy began gaining traction in September, Newt Gingrich's betting odds of earning the Republican nomination to run for the presidency have surpassed Cain's.
Gingrich is trading around 7 percent while Cain hovers near 5 percent. A week ago, before the Cain sexual harassment charges surfaced, the numbers were roughly reversed, with Cain close to 8 percent and Gingrich around 3.5 percent. (For those unfamiliar with Intrade.com, the odds are not set by bookies; instead the site works as an exchange with the prices based on where market participants are willing to buy and sell.)
During this week of turmoil, Mitt Romney's betting odds have barely changed, going from about 69 percent to 70 percent, while Rick Perry's odds have actually dropped by almost two percent, from about 12.5 percent to 10.5 percent.
In short, while conventional wisdom is what Romney is the main beneficiary of the chaos surrounding Herman Cain, betting odds tell a different story: the big winner, at least for one week, is Newt Gingrich.
This isn't a big surprise from a betting perspective with Romney's odds already so much higher than his polling numbers. It's a lot easier to make a substantial move up from 3 percent, where Gingrich was 10 days ago (and where I bought some Gingrich "futures"), than from the high 60s, where Romney has been for most of the past month.
Also, it speaks to the persistent, almost desperate, search by much of the GOP base for someone, anyone, other than Romney with the belief that Romney is a liberal in conservative clothing. This is of course a theme which pro-Obama forces such as the Washington Post are , probably because they (1) expect Romney to be the nominee, and (2) fear him most among the Republican field. Democrats understand, as many conservative Republican activists sometimes overlook, that the flip side of flip-flopping may be to enhance Romney's ability to portray himself as a moderate, potentially a major benefit in the general election. (To be sure, balancing "flip-flopper" and "moderate" will be an act fit for the political equivalent of a Cirque de Soleil acrobat, and with the political risk of doing that balancing on a high wire without a net.)
I wrote a few months ago that former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich had disqualified himself from the Republican nomination by his statement that Paul Ryan's Medicare reform proposals were "right-wing social engineering." Although Newt has done much to rehabilitate himself with conservatives, perhaps enough even to forgive such an egregious statement, I continue to believe he is not electable as president.
His personal baggage is too heavy and will make him unable to narrow the "gender gap," a phenomenon in recent elections as well as in approval ratings of our current president whereby women prefer Republicans less (or Democrats more) than men by somewhere from 5 to 10 percent. Gingrich's professorial approach and his focus on "big ideas" is laudable and has an important place in politics, but says nothing about his abilities as an executive. And how can we forget this gag-reflex-triggering vision of Gingrich sitting on a couch with Nancy Pelosi, saying "we do agree that our country must take action to address climate change"?
To be fair, Gingrich publicly regretted making the ad, and one year later described Nancy Pelosi as "despicable, dishonest, and vicious." Slightly too tame, but at least not sitting on a couch making nice to help an Al Gore organization. Nevertheless, even rock-ribbed conservatives mistrust Gingrich in a way that might even be worse than the more common criticisms of Mitt Romney. As Quin Hillyer laid out on these very pages, not only has Gingrich held non-conservative positions on health care and climate change, not only has he had some spectacular political failures following the important success of the 1994 elections, but he seems to bring out his sharpest fangs when criticizing conservatives.
Pace my friend Quin, on balance I like (or at least tolerate) Gingrich and could imagine him being a good president, bringing energy to sweeping reforms and regaining American influence abroad. But a Gingrich nomination offers more risk than I am willing to accept of four more years of Barack Obama.
Although the numbers have probably improved slightly in recent days, the RealClearPolitics average of three recent polls matching Gingrich against President Obama gives Obama a 14 percent advantage. This compares to a 2 point edge for Obama over Romney.
President Obama currently has, again according to RealClearPolitics poll averages, an 8 point edge over Herman Cain (though that will probably spike up in upcoming polls), a 10.5 percent advantage over Rick Perry, a 14 point lead over Michele Bachmann, and a surprisingly narrow 6 point lead on Ron Paul.
In other words, while Herman Cain's turmoil is causing more people to look at Gingrich and is likely to give Gingrich a slight boost in an Obama matchup, he nevertheless has been one of the weakest Republicans in the field based on head-to-head polling against Obama, hardly an insignificant measure.
As much as it may be appealing to support "the smartest guy in the room" for the most powerful position on the planet, it is far preferable for Newt to be, at most, the eventual Republican nominee's running mate.
Can you imagine a Newt Gingrich versus Joe Biden debate? True, people rarely cast ballots based on the VP candidate, but several studies show that Sarah Palin substantially changed that dynamic in 2008. (The studies tend to conclude, as this most recent one does, that Palin ended up costing the Republican ticket substantial support among "swing voters.") A Gingrich-Biden debate would highlight better than any other candidate confrontation I can imagine the literal stupidity of the Obama administration. It would leave voters, most importantly independent voters, simply unwilling to vote for a team that places Biden a step away from the presidency.
But, I hear you say, voters did that already. And correct you are, but now that the fog of Obama's "historic" candidacy has been blown away by the persistent foul wind of over-nine percent unemployment, people are free to focus on the true destructiveness and economic idiocy of this administration, and what better representative of both than "Plugs" Biden?
Whatever good things you may believe of Sarah Palin and even if you believe she beat Biden in their October 2008 debate (which was watched by a stunning 70 million people) she was roughly in Biden's rhetorical weight class in that contest. Gingrich-Biden would be like putting the current UFC heavyweight champion, Cain Velasquez, against Ralph Macchio, though comparing Macchio to Biden is patently unfair to Mr. Miyagi's eye for talent.
Going back to the conventional wisdom that Romney is the major gainer from Herman Cain's troubles and considering the fact that betting odds have only Gingrich with significant gains in the past week, I think they're both right.
Yes, Gingrich has moved up substantially… to the point where his betting odds are one tenth of Romney's instead of one twentieth. So while Mitt Romney's betting odds have been fairly stable, the real story is that despite consistently mediocre poll numbers across the nation (except for in New Hampshire) his odds have remained stable at roughly twice the entire rest of the field combined.
Now that the "anybody but Romney" wing of the GOP, which seems, at least temporarily, to be a majority of the party base, has cycled its way through Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, Donald Trump, Rick Perry, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, and is halfway through Herman Cain, it makes sense for Gingrich's odds to rise. Meanwhile bettors continue to believe that the "anybody but Romney" crowd, as large as it is, will be unsuccessful in their quest to find an other-than-Romney candidate whom William F. Buckley would approve of as "the most conservative electable candidate." (Emphasis mine.)
Republicans are properly and intensely focused on beating Barack Obama, a fact that limits Newt Gingrich's potential success despite his repeatedly winning debates and showing himself as an intelligent and mature candidate. For those who like betting on such things -- and I do -- I'll be looking to sell my Gingrich "futures" soon. Perhaps unfortunately -- but perhaps not -- the "anybody but Romney" wing of the GOP is running out of options.