Every politician needs a base. Mitt Romney has the business establishment. Ron Paul has libertarians. Rick Santorum has social conservatives. Michele Bachmann had Tea Partiers for a while, before Herman Cain won them over.
But who’s behind Newt Gingrich? ’90s nostalgics? People with a penchant for shoddily researched history? His rise in the polls—from about 6 percent to 12 percent—has only made the question more intriguing. And so, I set out to solve this mystery by speaking to about a dozen of his supporters around the country: What, I wanted to know, did they find so appealing about Newt?
My quest began with a South Carolina regional field director for the Gingrich campaign, Allen Olson. Olson had received some notice in the national media for his support of Gingrich. The founder of a local Tea Party chapter, Olson used to be a Bachmann guy—until he watched the candidates speak at Jim DeMint’s presidential forum over Labor Day weekend and saw the error of his ways. “She’s not bringing anything new to the table,” he said of Bachmann. Enter Gingrich, who Olson believed was offering “real solutions.” He decided to resign his post with the Columbia Tea Party, officially endorse Newt, and join the campaign.
Olson’s debate-prompted conversion was not atypical. Time and again, the Newt enthusiasts I spoke to mentioned the candidate’s impressive rhetorical skills. “When somebody asks Newt a question on the subject, he sticks to the subject and gives a straightforward answer,” Gary Gahan, a 67-year-old New Hampshire Tea Party activist, told me. (Mitt Romney he found evasive and slippery.) “Unanimously, people say that he would destroy Obama in debates,” said Natalie Ginty, a student at the University of Iowa and chair of the Iowa Federation of College Republicans. “If a person leans conservative and watches debates, they would almost instantly become a Newt Gingrich supporter,” a New Hampshire state representative named Joe Osgood told me. Since he joined Facebook in 2010, Osgood’s profile picture has depicted him, wide-eyed and slightly star-struck, shaking hands with Newt in front of the American and New Hampshire flags.
Greenville, South Carolina resident Susan Reaney, an active contributor to Gingrich’s Facebook page, also noted his eloquence during debates, especially in comparison with Rick Perry. “Whenever I have a president sitting in the White House, I want him to be able to talk to anyone and get his message across,” Reaney told me. “And Newt can do that.” But Reaney, 54, has found other things to like about Newt as well. As someone who can’t find full-time employment and relies on food stamps, she feels that Newt speaks to her predicament. “I hear a lot of candidates speaking about the middle class,” she told me. “But I hear very few speaking about the poor—which is what I am. Newt is speaking about that.”
Reaney met Gingrich in person a few weeks ago, when he spoke at a Chick-fil-A in Greenville. The encounter only reinforced her support: Newt was charming and presidential, she said, and his wife Callista was “regal.” Reaney wasn’t the only person I spoke to who praised Newt’s third wife. “Vivacious” was the word used by William Keettel, a Republican county caucus chair in Iowa. Gingrich’s adulterous marital record doesn’t seem to have presented any major roadblocks. Gahan called Newt a “straight shooter” and a “family values person.” When I asked about his three marriages and history of adultery, he responded: “It’s not something people are talking about.”
Newt’s back catalog of writings was another mark in his favor. “I’m a fan of his literature,” Keettel told me. (Keettel isn’t endorsing anyone yet, but he’s leaning toward Newt.) The Iowan went on to describe some of Newt’s volumes of speculative fiction, which imagine what might have happened if Civil War battles had gone another way or if the Japanese had changed strategy during World War II. “It’s pretty interesting stuff,” he said. Even some younger conservatives are impressed by Newt’s prolific writings. “He has so many books,” Ginty, the College Republican, gushed. Has she read any of them? She hasn’t gotten around to it yet (her mom bought a couple for her), but she’s heard him talk about them quite a bit, and she’s seen one of his movies. (To date, Newt and Callista have produced and appeared in seven straight-to-DVD films, with titles like Rediscovering God in America and Rediscovering God in America II: Our Heritage.)
But perhaps the thing I heard most often from the people I surveyed was praise for Newt’s record in the capital. With antagonism for Washington running high, this surprised me. “It’s a risk to go with anyone who has more than two years of Washington experience,” New Hampshire-based accountant and Tea Partier Terry Strout said, but he’s inclined to make that gamble in Gingrich’s case. “I believe it will wind up being an asset, not a detriment.” I heard the same thing from another New Hampshire Tea Partier, Michelle McManus. “You need to know the ropes to play the game in the Beltway,” she told me. “And there are a lot of ropes.”
Despite the partisan rancor that he incited in his years as speaker, Newt has somehow developed a reputation as a man who gets things done—one who even reaches out across party lines. “He worked well across the aisle with Clinton,” Strout said. I heard the same message from Gahan (“He can manage both sides of the aisle much better”) and Reaney (“I think he’s going to be much more able to work with Congress on a bipartisan basis”). Bipartisan isn’t the first word that comes to mind when I think of Newt Gingrich, but there it was.
And then, of course, there is the still-ongoing search among conservatives for an alternative, any alternative, to Mitt Romney. “In my mind there’s Mitt Romney and all of the others,” Strout told me. He first met Newt at a campaign event in New Hampshire a few months ago but was unconvinced. “He’d been off my radar screen,” Strout said. “I wasn’t quite confident of his commitment in this race.” Eventually, though, Strout was won over—and now he’s optimistic about Gingrich’s chances. “Newt is showing strength,” he said. “I think he can win.”
Esther Breger is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic. This article appeared in the December 1, 2011, issue of the magazine.