'Likeability' Unlikely to Derail Gingrich in GOP Primary

The way a candidate comes across is important, but in tough times, ideas prevail.

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Will former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's past and personality discount his recent bump in the polls? Pundits speculate that they might, but presidential experts disagree.

While likeability does matter, experts say it certainly isn't everything—particularly during economic doldrums.

"The likeability of a candidate affects his or her ability to get [policy] ideas across," says Jeff Shesol, who was a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton. "But I think it shouldn't be overstated."

Clinton, along with Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy, are presidents known for their winsome charm. President George W. Bush also won the likeability contest over opponents Al Gore and John Kerry, experts say.

[Read: Newt Gingrich Embraces 'Tortoise' Campaign Strategy.]

Not to say likeability alone gets presidents elected, but it has certainly helped.

"Warmth and openness and humor and all the things that make Clinton likeable, those went a long way toward establishing that he was a guy who got people and their problems and had good answers," explains Shesol. Obviously it took more than that to win the election, Shesol adds, but likeability "was an advantage for him."

On the other hand, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's reputation is as "the smartest guy in the room," not the most likeable guy. At times he seems to talk down to his questioners during debates, and he has a history of undisciplined statements that got him in trouble during his days as speaker—something he admitted at the beginning of the campaign that he was working on.

Of course ideas, policies, and intelligence are vital, but intangibles do influence voters as well, and Gingrich has rubbed some people the wrong way.

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"Newt Gingrich has never been known to register very high on the likeability scale," says Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who works with former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman's SuperPAC. "But he is now making a surge because he seems to meet at least some of the other criteria, particularly the knowledge and vision for America in the 21st Century."

Ayres says he doesn't think Gingrich's surge will last, but not for reasons of likeability.

"We want knowledge and vision," he says, "but we also want temperament and judgment," attributes Ayres notes have not been Gingrich's strong points in the past.

But there is a precedent for people not considered likeable winning anyway, most recently with Richard Nixon.

"I don't know that anyone found Richard Nixon particularly likeable, maybe up to and including his own family, but he won two presidential elections," says Ayres. "So being likeable is desirable, but not being particularly likeable is not disqualifying."

Ayres says Nixon overcame the challenge by proving himself (before Watergate, of course) to be ready to make good judgment calls for the country, as well as "someone who was broadly knowledgeable, clearly competent, and ready to be leader of the free world."

Gingrich will have to do the same if he wants to win. And the economic crisis may actually help his ideas continue to overshadow any doubts about his character and personality.

Even Clinton worked under the notion that personality is less important to voters during times of deep crisis, Shesol explains.

"But if they understood what the stakes were and what the different ideas were between the candidates," he adds, "then likeability is less important."


Corrected 11/17/11: A previous version of this article misspelled the name Whit Ayres.