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Mark Shields: Why Newt Gingrich Scares Republicans

Party faces across-the-board defeat with Gingrich the GOP presidential nominee

Hymie Shorenstein, a legendary Democratic leader in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, was renowned for delivering lopsided majorities, up to 15 to 1, for his party on Election Day.

One year, the story goes, a party-endorsed candidate for judge who had contributed generously to the Democratic coffers nervously asked Boss Shorenstein where all the posters and pins were with his name on them. Shorenstein reportedly asked the anxious candidate: “Did you ever stand on the wharf and watch the Staten Island ferry come in? And look down in the water and see all the candy wrappers, banana peels and garbage? And when the Staten Island ferry docks, it brings with it all the garbage? Well, the name of your ferryboat is Franklin D. Roosevelt. So stop worrying.”

It is true that a popular presidential candidate can provide an enormous boost on Election Day for his party’s candidates running with him for lower offices on the ballot. For example, President Ronald Reagan in 1984 carried 377 of the 435 congressional districts and helped, among others, scores of Republican candidates running that day for county commissioner.

At the same time, an unpopular presidential nominee can put his party’s down-ballot candidates in a politically impossible situation. You don’t want to repudiate your party’s presidential candidate (because you do want his loyal supporters to vote for you), but you have to establish enough independence from the unpopular top of the ticket that you can persuade up to one out of three voters who vote for the other party’s more popular presidential nominee to switch over and vote for you.

Which brings us to the case of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who according to most recent national polls is Republican voters’ favorite to be their 2012 GOP presidential nominee. The problem, especially for all Republicans whose own names that will be on the Nov. 6 ballot, is that Gingrich is the weakest Republican candidate when matched against President Barack Obama.

As respected Democratic pollster Peter Hart — who with respected Republican pollster Bill McInturff conducts the Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll — puts it, referring to the 1964 Republican nominee who got just 38.5 percent of the national vote against Democrat Lyndon Johnson: “Gingrich is Goldwater. In the general election, Gingrich not only takes down the ship, he takes the whole (Republican) flotilla down with him.”

Fox News senior analyst Britt Hume, who has well covered U.S. presidential politics and is a man with solid conservative credentials, cited Fox News’ own poll showing Gingrich’s favorability at 27 percent and his unfavorability at 56 percent when he candidly said on the air, “Believe me, Republicans in Congress will be terrified to run with this man for fear they will lose the House and Senate.”

This week’s Journal-NBC News survey confirms the assessments of Hart and Hume. While Mitt Romney loses 49 percent to 43 percent in a matchup with Obama, the president crushes Gingrich 55 percent to 37 percent. But here’s the terrifying news for Republicans who desperately want to win both the White House and Congress: Obama leads Romney 44 to 36 among the all-important independent voters, but Obama whips Gingrich by 52 percent to 28 percent among independents.

Proving that character is destiny and that American politics can indeed be personal, Gingrich loses to Obama among the majority of voters who are women by two to one, 60 percent to 31 percent. What you are now seeing is not some liberal conspiracy to sink Gingrich, but instead panic in the GOP ranks and the determination of many of the party’s office-seekers to avoid the devastating across-the-board Republican defeat they fear the nomination of Gingrich will make inevitable.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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