Newt Gingrich has surged to the lead in the race for the Republican presidential nomination with the strong support of evangelical Christian voters. To some, given Gingrich's personal life, this support is puzzling. Whatever else people say about Mitt Romney, his personal life seems above reproach and a good role model for others.
But Gingrich benefits from the fact that when it comes to ethics, voters always grade politicians on a curve. Among Republican primary voters nationwide, 68 percent believe the former House speaker's ethical standards are at least as good as those of most other politicians. Even 51 percent of Romney supporters and 74 percent of Rick Santorum's voters view the ethics of Gingrich as the norm for his peers.
This says more about the public view of politicians than it does about Gingrich. When it comes to character, Gingrich places fourth out of four among the Republican contenders in the eyes of GOP primary voters. Only 9 percent believes he has the best personal character of the group. But in a world where 52 percent of voters believe it's likely their own representative in Congress trades votes for cash, the personal baggage carried by Gingrich is seen as the unfortunate norm rather than a disqualifying offense.
Ironically, Rasmussen polling first identified how steep a curve is used to judge political ethics at the time Gingrich was trying to drag down President Bill Clinton on personal transgressions. In that case, and in just about every other political scandal since, most voters tend to believe that the politician in question is just doing what politicians do. It's a part of the political culture that voters would desperately like to see changed.
While being graded on a curve helped Gingrich pass the ethics test, his lead in the polls comes because many Republicans now see him as the strongest general election candidate against President Obama. That's a shocking development in a campaign where Team Romney always trumpeted electability as their strongest argument. Polls going back for more than a year have consistently shown Romney performing better than Gingrich or anyone else against the president. And make no mistake about it, electability is far and away the most important quality Republican voters are looking for in a candidate.
Now, however, 39 percent of GOP primary voters nationally see Gingrich as the strongest candidate, while just 37 percent still say it of Romney. The former Massachusetts governor may look like the better candidate on paper, but many Republicans have watched Gingrich's debate performances and concluded that he will be more effective on the campaign trail. Whether or not that's an accurate perception, Gingrich's surge in the polls will last as long as a sizable number of Republicans believes it to be true.
The roller-coaster nature of the Republican race stems from the fact that none of the candidates has closed the sale when it comes to convincing voters they can win in November. Perhaps tired of waiting, 33 percent of GOP voters now feel it would be good for a new candidate to jump into the presidential race.