BOSTON (TheStreet) -- With Newt Gingrich now tied with Mitt Romney for the lead in the GOP primary, we have to deal with his prospect against President Obama in the November 2012 general election. Until a month ago, Gingrich was polling, at best, around 10%, but now he has more than doubled his support and effectively ties Romney in the low 20s.
The somewhat familiar case against Gingrich is twofold and goes something like this:
1. People know the "old" Gingrich from the 1980s and, more importantly, the 1990s, and for some reason this Gingrich is someone Americans severely dislike and will therefore vote against.
2. Republicans won't be enthusiastic about Gingrich because he has taken various leftist positions over the past 35 years on a long list of issues ranging from government health care, gun restrictions, government education and general big spending programs.
As far as Newt's "baggage" is concerned, it is not likely to become an issue in either the primary Republican nomination process nor in the general election. Why?
It's simple, actually: Most people simply don't remember. Whatever Newt Gingrich may or may not have done -- politically or personally -- that some people would consider to be less than flattering 15 to 30 years ago, almost nobody remembers today. The only people who remember are part of the professional political class in and around Washington D.C.
The U.S. electorate these days has very limited memory. Most voters don't remember that we used to fight the communists, as opposed to putting them in the White House. When it came to 9/11 and the anthrax attacks, memories and implications for national security policy also faded within a year or two. The dust was barely off the ground in Lower Manhattan, and people were already conveying Miranda rights on foreign terrorists captured in Pakistan.
Likewise, most voters going to the polls in 2008 didn't even know that Nancy Pelosi was speaker of the House and that therefore the Democrats were in charge of Congress. A very large percentage of the 2008 voters went for the Democrats because they thought the Republicans were in charge of Congress.
As a result, any attacks on Newt Gingrich based on whatever he may or may not have done 15 to 30 years ago will prove completely fruitless.
The U.S. electorate sees that there is significant economic weakness in America
-- 9% unemployment, 10% deficit and 100% debt -- and they want to throw the bums out. This means that any incumbent is on shaky ground -- not only Obama, but also any Republican in Congress, whether this is fair or not. In a nation with no focus on historical education, interest or knowledge, resting on historical arguments will count for almost nothing when the pain is here and now.
The 2012 presidential election will come down to marketing, positioning and campaign skills -- however you want to phrase it. The winning candidate must be able to have an interesting message and deliver it in a way that makes people listen. That may sound trivial, but the execution of this plan is anything but.
For example, what was John McCain's message in 2008, and did he deliver it in a way that made people want to listen to him? Exactly, I don't remember that either, and I followed that election as closely as anybody.
There is a reason the verdict is almost unanimous, that Gingrich has won every single Republican debate to date: When Newt speaks, the audience stops and listens. Newt has a way with words and how he packages his delivery that makes the audience's jaws almost drop to the floor and concentrate on what he is saying. It's hypnotizing in the sense that when Newt speaks, you pay attention -- even if you don't necessarily like everything he says. That's a rare gift.
This is a tremendous skill -- or talent, if you wish. Obama had a variant of this talent in 2008. As Obama put it to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid: "I have a gift, Harry." Indeed, Obama is the master of the teleprompter. His voice, intonation -- even his superbly tailored suits and well-studied mannerisms -- are among the best ever. Clearly, Obama can deliver a superb speech.
Stylistically, that is. Obama has the skills of delivery, but Gingrich has what Obama doesn't: substance. Of course, many other of Gingrich's opponents in the Republican primary have tremendous substance on the issues, but none of them have the captivating delivery that is so natural to Gingrich standing or sitting on any stage. He speaks with rare authority.
The political pundit class, located mostly in Washington D.C. and New York City, believe that their perception of people's memories of Newt in 1995 will doom Gingrich in either the Republican primary or in the general election. The reason they believe accordingly is that they generally disagree with him, and they have a professional stake in remembering all the twists and turns of a generation ago.
But those professional political pundits are not the average voter. The voters of 2012 will be persuaded by whoever combines captivating delivery with substance. In 2008, Obama provided the captivating delivery part, but seeing as there was very little substance at best (hope! change!), he barely squeaked by with 53% against the very weak McCain.
When all the dust has settled, the 2012 election will come down to how the Republican candidate performs in the debates against Obama. In 1980, voters were split 46%-46% one week before the election. Reagan and Carter had not debated. It was only on Oct. 28, one week before the election, that they debated. As a result of the superior and memorable Reagan debate performance, he won a landslide victory a week later.
In 2008, McCain was devoid of campaign skills and mostly managed to shoot himself in the foot, campaign-wise, with almost-daily frequency. Only in the days following his selection of Sarah Palin as VP candidate did he poll ahead of Obama. This time Obama won't be so lucky.
Gingrich would follow Obama on the campaign trail, let's say, four hours behind, and always appear with an extra chair or extra podium next to his own, challenging Obama to seven three-hour long "Lincoln-Douglas debates" that took place in seven Illinois towns in 1858 between Sen. Stephen Douglas (D-Ill.) and his Republican opponent Abraham Lincoln.
The sight of Gingrich challenging Obama to these long debates would be the highlight of the 2012 election in a way that would set it apart from every other candidate, in any other election in memory. Surely the former Illinois senator and former editor of the
Harvard Law Review
would not turn down the opportunity to debate the former speaker of the House. Or would he?
Frankly, I believe it is this prospect of Gingrich challenging Obama to these Lincoln-Douglas debates is what motivates a large part of Gingrich's support in the Republican primary. The Republican primary voters are looking for something out of the box. The Anti-McCain, if you wish. And while Romney is clearly no McCain, Romney is also no Gingrich -- at least in this respect.
The comparison with Romney also brings up another important myth about Gingrich's weaknesses that needs to be punctuated, at least in part. It is true that Gingrich's various personal shortcomings is going to be something of a hurdle in obtaining the Republican nomination. However, if Gingrich proves successful in so obtaining, these issues will be only of minor concern in the general election.
In winning the general election, Gingrich would have to be careful in avoiding at least some of the Republican stereotypes. For example, he probably wouldn't want to be seen as a bible-thumping evangelical, gay-basher or focused on making all forms of abortion totally illegal. Focusing on some of those cultural-war issues would likely prove counter-productive, possibly changing the outcome of the election.
However, there are some "flaws" that both Republican and Democrat candidates can get away with, that might have hurt their bases in a primary election some months earlier. For a Democrat, positioning himself in a general election as someone who will cut wasteful government spending, lower taxes and cut red tape would not hurt his general election prospects. He would lose some Democrats, for sure, but he might gain just as many Republican votes.
Likewise, a Republican can afford to have some personal flaws. The only divorced president we have had is Ronald Reagan, and I will take 49 states out of 50 any day. The so-called "Reagan Democrats" came to dominate 25 years of American politics, including those same Reagan Democrats voting for Bill Clinton who cut taxes and de-regulated 1995-1999 in partnership with -- you guessed it -- Newt Gingrich.
The unspoken undercurrent in the 2012 election will be the shadows of the people the American electorate liked best in the 1990s -- the Clintons and Newt Gingrich. Despite their various flaws and missteps, they got the job done. The Clintons aren't running -- yet, anyway -- but Newt is.
It won't happen, but imagine a Gingrich-Hillary ticket. Would anyone argue that it would be unstoppable? The contrast with Obama couldn't be greater: The people who got it done in the economy, versus the guy who (so far) is getting it done 88 days on the golf course.
Basically, Gingrich would be largely immune against Democrats' criticism concerning personal issues. In essence, think about it: The hero of the current Democratic Party is Bill Clinton, and they voted enthusiastically for him and came two inches away from making John Edwards president in 2008 as well as vice president in 2004. In this perspective, the Democrats criticizing Gingrich for marital infidelity will only be met by a big yawn from the electorate.
For the record, I think Hillary is highly overrated, but in politics perception is reality. Newt would have much better VP candidates, such as
CEO and founder Fred Smith and
CEO and founder T.J. Rogers.
In summary, Newt Gingrich's "baggage" is at least 75% a non-issue. The political history from the 1980s and 1990s is something that 99% of Republican and Democratic voters alike have either completely forgotten or totally discounted. The personal imperfections is an issue only in the Republican primary, where Gingrich's opposition now has been reduced to Mitt Romney, who in turn is a very good candidate, but not on par with Ronald Reagan.
For these reasons, Newt Gingrich is now the favorite to win both the Republican primary and the 2012 general presidential election.
This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.
Anton Wahlman was a sell-side equity research analyst covering the communications technology industries from 1996 to 2008: UBS 1996-2002, Needham & Company 2002-2006, and ThinkEquity 2006-2008.