Matt Lewis

Newt Gingrich’s next obstacle: The realization that he could actually win

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor

As the notion of Mitt Romney’s inevitability evaporates, Newt Gingrich may face an ironic dilemma: Voters will no longer be asked to vote for him merely in order to prolong the primary process (as Sarah Palin recommended) — but rather, they will be asked to vote for Gingrich to be the Republican nominee.

That’s a more serious of a commitment — and you’d better believe Romney’s team is working overtime to convince Floridians a vote for Gingrich is “dangerous” and “risky.”

And it just might work. My guess is that a certain portion of voters — clearly almost all the establishment types, but probably a lot of other Republicans, too — would rather lose gracefully than take the chance of losing in dramatic (and foolish-looking) fashion. (How would they face their friends?)

This has more to do with emotion than it does with making rational decisions. Essentially, here’s how it works: If Mitt Romney loses the general election (which could very well happen), Republicans will not look foolish. Nominating Mitt Romney is a safe and respectable choice.

Newt Gingrich, on the other hand, presents the opportunity for Republicans to experience either extreme greatness or endure a crushing defeat. Their is little middle ground. (Romney’s team will also argue this has consequences that transcend the presidency; the top of the ticket also impacts house and senate races.)

Logically, of course, one could easily argue Gingrich would be the tougher opponent for Obama to defeat in November. He can appeal to blue collar “swing” voters in a way that Mitt Romney (see Gordon Gekko) can’t. And Gingrich is clearly the better debater.

But none of that will stop the fact that the media will portray a Gingrich nomination as laughable. This matters because my experience is that humans hate losing — hate being made to look foolish — even more than they like winning (which is why poker players unwisely often go “full tilt” after losing a hand).

This psychological principle manifests itself often in — of all places — football games. Consider this: “Every single serious study of 4th-down decisions,” reports the New York Times football blog, “has found that, in most situations, teams would be better off by going for the conversion attempt rather than kicking.”

Yet despite consistent mathematical evidence that coaches should go for it on 4th-down, they reliably punt on 4th-downs. As the Times noted,

Professor David Romer, author of one of the definitive papers on the subject, theorized that coaches are worried more about job security than winning. If a coach goes for it and fails, it’s his fault. But if he punts and loses, well, that’s just football, and his players take the blame.

You get the analogy, of course. Gingrich might be slightly more likely to beat Obama, but if he loses, you get fired as head coach (okay, not really.)

One can easily see how or why political pundits might act like football coaches, but will voters? Clearly there are differences: NFL coaches are paid millions of dollars; their decisions are public (they don’t have a secret ballot); and there are only a handful of jobs.

It’s clearly not a perfect analogy.

On the other hand, supporting a candidate is an emotional investment, just as supporting a sports team is an investment. When one says, “We beat the Cowboys,” he does not literally believe he plays for the Redskins, yet a loss still feels like he does.

Thus, it stands to reason that risk-avoidance might factor into a voter’s decision. And if one must lose, it’s better to lose gracefully (at least, then, you can explain it). Coaches don’t go for it on 4th-down because if they do and it fails, they will look silly (this phenomenon is also why Tim Tebow was very lucky to ever get to throw an NFL pass.) Losing is fine; looking silly is not.

Newt Gingrich will likely have to overcome a similar psychological hurdle with voters if he is to win the nomination. Republican voters tend to do the safe, conservative thing (see Bob Dole). Every once in a while, however (see Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan), they fake a punt and throw a Hail Mary.

And sometimes, they win.