Primary elections are about running to the extremes; general elections are about running to the middle. In the case of the Republicans, that journey back to the middle requires balancing their need to keep their fragile base of evangelicals, Tea Partiers and free-marketers content with the urgency of reaching the growing percentage of voters that no longer identify with one party. General elections in modern times are increasingly about wooing independent voters, and as we move toward November the focus will be on them. Romney, the likely nominee, will have to balance his ticket with someone that will satisfy his base and yet be able to reach independent voters in the swing states. There are a number of possible picks, but the happy middle for Romney seems to have Gingrich’s name on it.
The recent political chatter has centered on Rand Paul. On the surface it seems plausible. First, it would at least explain why Ron Paul has been so uncharacteristically tame toward Romney. Second, Rand Paul is a conservative Southerner, an identity that Romney does not connect well with. However, Rand Paul’s brand of conservatism is far too extreme for the general voter. In Paul’s Senate campaign he argued that private businesses should still have the right to discriminate. It’s one thing to advocate for states’ rights in general terms, and another to try to argue against the long-settled constitutional and societal norm that discrimination is unacceptable. While this position did not harm his election, it may not play as well outside of his home state of Kentucky and the Deep South.
The vice-presidential speculation has also gotten hot about Marco Rubio. The presumption is that Rubio has got it all. He is Latino, young, articulate and a Tea Party darling from a swing state. But this option is a non-starter. Cubans in Florida are largely Republican, making up 5 percent of the Latino electorate, and are densely concentrated in Florida. The reality is that the vast majority of Latinos outside of Florida are Democrats and of Mexican descent, for whom Rubio would have little appeal. This is especially the case given the hard line he has taken on immigration. Romney could not count on Rubio to connect with Latinos in the swing states of Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada and bring them over to the GOP ticket.
Another possibility would seem to be the primaries’ number two, Santorum. After Super Tuesday he has shown that he can deliver in the South and in the Midwest. And the fact that Romney and Santorum don’t care much for each other doesn’t matter—neither did Ronald Regan and George H.W. Bush nor John Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. The issue with Santorum is that he’s got a lady problem. His views alienate independent and moderate Republican women. Women vote at consistently higher rates than men. This is not a group you want to alienate in the general election.
This brings us to Newt Gingrich. Yes, he has a number of flaws. He has a history of marital infidelity, murky financial dealings and charisma that borders on arrogance. But it just so happens that these flaws are counterbalanced by Romney’s rock-solid personal and professional narrative and his social awkwardness. During Gingrich’s brief tenure as front-runner he also demonstrated an eagerness to be confrontational and combative, qualities that Romney seems to abhor. Gingrich also demonstrates a Palinesque quality in his ability to work a crowd and charm voters, two characteristics that would make up for Romney’s country-club persona. And as far as the marital infidelities go, who doesn’t like a story of redemption, especially evangelicals, who embrace forgiveness as a reminder of human frailty?
Gingrich is in that sweet spot to the right of Romney and to the left of Santorum. It is in this spot that Romney needs to concern himself. Sure, he will help turn out the South, but then again, there is about a zero likelihood that the South would vote for President Obama regardless of the vice presidential pick. Gingrich is the Ying to Romney’s Yang. And finally, it would be kind of fun to see a Gingrich-Biden debate.