Gingrich An Unpopular Figure During His Tenure As Speaker

by Frank Newport

Image Somewhat Better This Year


Newt Gingrich's announcement last week that he would step down as Speaker of the House of Representatives marked the culmination of the congressional career of a politician who has never been a popular figure among Americans. From the moment he became a well-known face on the political landscape, Gingrich has generated negative public reactions. He has consistently received more unfavorable than favorable ratings in terms of his personal image, has also been given generally low approval ratings for the job he has done as Speaker, and almost always has fared poorly when compared to his sometime nemesis, Bill Clinton. Still, perhaps ironically, Gingrich was enjoying what were for him relatively high ratings from the public this year, significantly up from his low water marks in 1995 and 1996.

Gingrich's Negative Image Became Apparent in Late 1994, Newt Gingrich moved into the national consciousness as the leader of the successful Republican effort to gain control of the House of Representatives in 1994. Gallup's first measure of the public's impression of Gingrich came in October of that year, immediately before the historic November election. At that point, even though almost six out of ten Americans had no opinion at all of the Georgia Congressman, his image was already slightly more negative than positive.

Immediately after the Republicans' election success – and for the only time in 18 different measures of his image since that time – Gingrich's image tilted positive. In a November 1994 poll, 29% of the public had a favorable opinion of Gingrich and 25% had a negative opinion. By December of that same year, however, his image had moved back into negative territory. It has remained more negative than positive ever since.

The public appeared to turn particularly strongly against the Speaker after his budget confrontation with Bill Clinton and the resulting U.S. Government shutdown in late 1995. (Publicity at the time, including a famous front page caricature in the New York Daily News, included the allegation that Gingrich had closed down the government because he was given a bad seat at the back of Air Force One when returning from the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin in Israel.) By January of 1996, 57% of Americans said that their image of Gingrich was unfavorable, compared with 37% who had a favorable image of him. This nearly two-to-one negative-to-positive image ratio persisted throughout most of 1996 and 1997.

Gingrich Fared Somewhat Better in 1998
Despite his ultimate downfall this month, Gingrich's image had actually become somewhat more positive in several polls conducted earlier this year. In February, for example, the percentage of Americans with an unfavorable image of Gingrich dropped below 50% for the first time since August of 1995. (This was generally consistent with a more positive mood that Americans had about many aspects of government following Bill Clinton's January State of the Union address.)

Although Gingrich's image dipped in a June Gallup poll, by October – the last measure before the elections – he had a partially rehabilitated image, with 42% of the public giving him a favorable image rating, and 49% unfavorable. Thus, there was some evidence that Gingrich was on the way back up in the minds of the public – but these measures were taken before the outcome of the November 3rd election, the subsequent criticism Gingrich and other Republican leaders took as a result, and his eventual resignation last week.

Job Ratings Parallel Evaluations of Gingrich's Image
From time to time, Gallup has also asked Americans to indicate their approval or disapproval of the job Gingrich was doing as Speaker of the House. Comparably to the public's rating of his image, Gingrich's job approval rating was quite low in 1995 and particularly in 1996 – generally in the 30% range. Gingrich's job approval rating in two polls conducted in late January shot up into the positive range, and in April there was, essentially, a tie between those who gave him positive and negative job performance ratings – the highest on this measure since he became Speaker.

Gingrich in Context: Comparisons to Clinton, Gephardt, Jim Wright
In many ways, the November election this year was viewed as a showdown between Gingrich and Bill Clinton. If it was, Clinton clearly had the more positive public opinion base with which to operate. The president's image and job approval ratings have generally been more positive than those of Gingrich – even throughout the past 11 months when the Monica Lewinsky matter dominated the news and threatened Clinton's entire presidency. In January of this year, for example, after the Lewinsky crisis became headline news, Gingrich's job approval ratings of 46% and 48% were well below Clinton's own job approval ratings of 58% and 60%. In April, while Gingrich had a 45% approval rating, Clinton's was 63%. And, despite the Lewinsky revelations, Bill Clinton's favorable image ratings this year have consistently been more positive than those of Gingrich have been. In February, June, and October of this year, Gingrich had 37%, 32%, and 42% favorable image ratings. At those same times, Clinton's favorable image ratings were much higher, at 58%, 61% and 54%.

It is not possible to compare Gingrich's ratings with those of previous Speakers or House leaders, since most were not prominent enough to be measured in Gallup polls. In an early October poll, however, House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt was included in an image rating list, and he had a favorable to unfavorable image rating of 48% to 20%, much more positive than Gingrich's 42% favorable and 49% unfavorable percentages in the same poll.

On the other hand, Democratic Speaker of the House Jim Wright was negatively evaluated in a May 1989 Gallup poll, when he received a 41% unfavorable and only 19% favorable image rating. This poll was taken in the middle of Wright's own problems with ethics charges, a controversy that provoked his resignation (and that was the result, in part, of the efforts of Congressman Newt Gingrich of Georgia).

Gingrich for President?
There has been some discussion that Newt Gingrich might entertain the possibility of running for President in 2000 or 2004. The early signs for such a run are not encouraging for the Speaker. In a poll conducted earlier this year, Gallup pitted Republicans against Al Gore in a hypothetical 2000 presidential ballot. Current Republican front runner, Texas Governor George W. Bush, was essentially tied with the Vice President at that time, while in the same poll Gingrich was soundly defeated by Gore, by a 62% to 32% margin.

Survey Methods
The results are based on telephone interviews with randomly selected national samples of adults, 18 years and older, conducted at various times between October, 1994 and October, 1998. The average size of these samples is 1,000. For results based on samples of this size, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the error attributable to sampling and other random effects could be as much as plus or minus 2 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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