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Does Newt Gingrich Pass His Own Litmus Test for Veep?

6 minute read
Devine and Kopko are the authors of The VP Advantage

Perhaps no one has received more attention in the Donald Trump “veepstakes” than former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

Now, getting the most VP buzz hardly guarantees selection (and, in fact, could be an orchestrated diversion of attention from Trump’s actual choice). But with many people considering him the likeliest Trump running mate—or even the only acceptable one—it is worth asking: Would Gingrich be a good pick for VP?

There’s no strict test for evaluating a running mate’s credentials; it’s a subjective process. However, in a recent interview with TIME, Gingrich identified three characteristics—in order of their importance—that he says Trump should look for in a vice presidential candidate. Using this test, we can evaluate whether Gingrich, according to his own standards, would make a good VP pick.

1. Is it a person who could actually be president if something happened to the president?

Gingrich undoubtedly has the qualifications to be president, as a former Speaker of the U.S. House, from 1995-1999 he was second in the line of presidential succession behind Vice President Al Gore. As Speaker, he worked with congressional leaders and President Bill Clinton to pass major welfare and tax reform legislation, and to balance the federal budget. Given this experience, Gingrich presumably understands the workings of Congress and the presidency better than nearly anyone else Trump could choose as his VP.

However, institutional know-how is not all that is required to serve effectively as president; a Commander in Chief must also have the right temperament and leadership qualities. Here, Gingrich’s credentials are more suspect. As Speaker, he twice lost in high-stakes games of brinksmanship with President Clinton—namely, the government shutdowns of 1995 and 1996—and also developed a reputation as a “crybaby” for his response to personal slights such as being asked to exit Air Force One via the rear door. He resigned as Speaker, and from the House altogether, after Republicans lost seats in the 1998 midterm elections, facing an internal rebellion from conservatives who had attempted to oust him the previous year.

2. Are they compatible in their ideas and attitudes, could they work together as a team?

There was a time when Trump and Gingrich would have disagreed on many policy ideas—specifically, the 1990s. While Gingrich led the conservative Republican revolution in the U.S. Congress, Trump favored abortion rights, as well as universal health care, and in 1999 he left the Republican Party to seek the presidential nomination of Ross Perot’s Reform Party.

Today, the two describe themselves as conservatives and they share the same political enemies: namely, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, the mainstream media and—in a similarly populist vein—wayward Republican Party elites. Where policy disagreements exist, past positions may be revised; recently, Gingrich said he “basically agree[d]” with Trump’s attacks on free trade despite decades of supporting such policies, including helping to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). If selected, Gingrich may have to reconcile other past positions; for instance, in 2012 Gingrich decried Mitt Romney’s self-deportation policy as lacking “humanity” and advocated granting citizenship or guest worker status to individuals illegally in the U.S. His campaign also sponsored an ad calling Romney “anti-immigrant,” echoing current attacks on Trump for his even more aggressive position on the issue.

3. Do they do at least a little bit to help win the election?

The answer to this one depends on what Gingrich means by “help” (at least a little bit).

Typically, when you hear speculation about a running mate helping to win an election, the expectation is that he or she will deliver a home state (or region) in the Electoral College, or a key demographic group that he or she belongs to (e.g., women, Catholics, Latinos). Our research on the electoral effect of vice presidential candidates indicates that these expectations are almost always illusory. Generally speaking, a presidential ticket gains no electoral advantage in a running mate’s home state, and voters are no more likely to vote for a presidential ticket when its vice presidential slot is filled by a fellow woman or minority group member. In Gingrich’s case, his home state of Georgia is not typically competitive, but Trump has been struggling there in recent polling. If Gingrich could help there, or among fellow Catholics, he could provide an electoral advantage. But, again, our research indicates that he—like most running mates—will not help at all with these voters.

Vice presidential candidates are most likely to help on the margins, by reassuring voters concerned about a presidential candidate’s lack of experience or by helping to unify a divided party. Indeed, Donald Trump has said that he is looking for a running mate to bring political experience and party unity. Gingrich certainly would add experience to Trump’s ticket, but it is less clear that he can help to unify the party by rallying disaffected establishment Republicans. After all, Gingrich has never aligned himself with the #NeverTrump movement, and in recent years, particularly during his 2012 battle against Romney for the Republican presidential nomination, he has positioned himself as a threat to the party establishment.

Finally, a running mate can help at the margins by reinforcing a presidential campaign’s message. If Trump’s pitch to voters is that he is an outsider who eschews political correctness in favor of blunt, hard truths, then Gingrich seems a good fit (aside from his complicated insider/outsider status). Then again, Gingrich also doubles down on the message advanced by Trump’s opponents—that he is a man with a sordid personal history who lacks political discipline and allegedly traffics in public bigotry.

Grading Newt Gingrich

Does Newt Gingrich pass his own VP test, then? Suffice it to say that this is not a math test—with definite, objective answers—but a political test. As such, the grade that Gingrich receives for his qualifications, policy stances and electoral appeal will probably depend upon who is grading him. In this case, it’s Donald Trump alone who will decide whether Gingrich aces the test or flunks it.

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