Opinion: Are You Smarter Than a Frontrunner?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011 - 09:36 AM

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Gov. Mitt Romney, Herman Cain and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. (Win McNamee/Getty)

Slammed as the Stupid Party, the GOP turns to Newt Gingrich as its new egghead savior.

With just under five weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses mark the official start of the Presidential primary season, the astonishing rise of former House speaker Newt Gingrich represents the biggest spit-take moment yet in this year's slapstick GOP nomination process.

Gingrich, a Beltway lifer with a history of ethical lapses, a penchant for serial adultery and the kind of temperament that's usually kept away from radio call-in lines, much less the nuclear go-button, spent the months of July and August hovering around the +/- four percent polling margin of error. Now, he's suddenly tied for the lead in Iowa and running a strong second in the New Hampshire primary, where he just received the coveted endorsement of the state's biggest and most influential newspaper, the Union-Leader.

But what's interesting is how Newt's sudden popularity spike is being treated by the political handicappers. Rather than a positive endorsement of the man and his agenda, observers seem to be framing it as a panic reaction to the spectacle of three successive Republican favorites exposing themselves as uninformed, unqualified, and frankly, not very bright in the blinding glare of the frontrunner spotlight. (And that's not even counting the GOP's bizarre flirtation with The Donald.)

Pundits like veteran conservative columnist Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post are pointing to the surprising rise of the ex-speaker as a wake-up call for a party that's taken to apologizing for (or even celebrating) the ignorance and incuriosity of its candidates. "Know-nothingness … has become de rigueur among the anti-elite, anti-intellectual Republican base, [where] the least informed earns the loudest applause," complained Parker in a column she wrote two weeks ago titled "The Palinization of the GOP." In her eyes, Gingrich, "a bombastic smarty-pants Republicans can call their own," might be the only solution.

Gingrich certainly comes off as a mental titan when compared to the trio he's supplanted — Herman "America needs leaders, not readers" Cain, Rick "Oops!" Perry and Michele "basically everything she says" Bachmann — but only by comparison.

In a scathing Politico story titled "Is Newt Gingrich as smart as he thinks?," a shiver of right-wing scholars deride Gingrich's tendency to substitute loquaciousness for logical consistency, and note that his big ideas often deflate into impracticality or erupt with unintended consequences when reconsidered in the light of day. As the Manhattan Institute's Fred Siegel snarks, "He is the tallest building in Wichita." (From the left, New York Times's Paul Krugman has been even more cutting in his appraisal of Gingrich, remarking in a TV appearance last week that Gingrich is the "stupid man's idea of what a smart man sounds like.")

These rsesoundingly skeptical assessments of the guy regularly praised as the "brightest guy in the Republican room" should give the party's serious types pause. The rest of us, too: Whoever scores the GOP nod will essentially have an even chance at becoming president during this time of ongoing global crisis, during which our nation will be in continued dire need of exceptional governance. And according to UC-Davis psychology professor Dean Keith Simonton, intelligence is the single characteristic most strongly tied to Oval Office success.

Simonton's research focuses on the character qualities that enable extraordinary achievement - the topic of his 1994 book, Greatness: Who Makes History and Why. In the 1980s, Simonton began to look at U.S. presidents in particular, testing the correlation of different personality traits with their level of performance in office. His investigation culminated in a 2006 study that compared expert estimates of the IQ of America's 42 presidents from George (Washington) to George (W. Bush) with their historical performance as ranked in scholarly surveys conducted by Siena College, C-SPAN and other institutions. The results, he says, were clear: Intelligence is "the only trait that effectively predicts presidential greatness."

By way of example, the five presidents who ended up being scored the smartest were Thomas Jefferson, John F. Kennedy, Woodrow Wilson, John Quincy Adams and Bill Clinton; those evaluated as the least smart were Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, James Monroe, Ulysses S. Grant, and Zachary Taylor and Andrew Johnson (tied). All five presidents on the "smart list" are regularly judged as having been at least above-average performers, with Jefferson, Kennedy and Wilson ranking among our top 10 greatest chief executives. Meanwhile, of the "dumb list," all but Monroe — who's usually assigned to the upper third of U.S. presidents — rattle around the very bottom of the barrel.

Simonton is quick to note that even those presidents judged to be the least intelligent are generally smarter than the U.S.norm. "There seems to be an implicit low bar," he says. "Most presidents have IQs no lower than 120, depending on how they're estimated. [Gerald] Ford was at the lower end of the distribution, but he was by no means dumb. The same holds for George W. Bush."

But this native intelligence is often compromised by traits that make presidents — and candidates — appear to be less bright than they really are, such as a resistance to conceptual complexity ("W. is an example of this," says Simonton) or unwillingness to do homework: "They try to wing it, thinking that charm and charisma can cover for ignorance," says Simonton. "We've had plenty of examples recently among the Republican candidates. There's no excuse for the gaffes they've had."

Those gaffes may well have doomed Bachmann, Perry and Cain's presidential bids — though in this year's crazy campaign, no one can really be counted out until the last chad hangs — but it's not clear if Gingrich can capitalize on them.

"Americans often show disdain for 'professors,'" says Simonton. "They want a 'man of the people' — competent but accessible. It's part of our [small-d] democratic everyman myth that anybody can become president if they just work hard enough."

That populist streak runs particularly deep in the Tea Party-dominated GOP. Which means that the current Gingrich swell might well ebb as quickly as it's surged, leaving Kathleen Parker's hopes for a smarter GOP dashed — and, perhaps, turning her column's title into an unintended prophecy. Sarah Palin's die-hard supporters are already running "Draft Sarah" ads in Iowa after all, and though enough filing dates have passed that it would be nearly impossible for her to win the nomination the usual way, Palin is not one for doing things the usual way.

Consider this scenario: The conservative wing of the party's profound antipathy for Mitt Romney prevent him from getting the delegates he needs to avoid a brokered convention. Meanwhile, the Big Three favorites of the base, Bachmann, Perry and Cain, have been too tainted by their failed frontrunner experiences to be effectively recycled. There's zero chance for consensus support to develop around idiosyncratic Ron Paul or irritating novelty candidate Rick Santorum, and Jon Huntsman is apparently more focused on winning the Democratic Party nomination than the GOP's. All of which means paves the way for a surprise re-entry by the only Republican with blanket support from the party's stalwart core — and the only potential candidate who's actually run in a general election campaign against Obama-Biden.

And with that, the "Palinization" of the GOP will truly be complete.

Jeff Yang, Pop & Politics blogger for "It's a Free Country," writes the column Tao Jones for the Wall Street Journal Online. Follow him on Twitter at @originalspin.


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Comments [5]

Bob M from Manhattan

I am curious to know when, why and how it became axiomatic that a 'businessman' would make a good President? Have we ever had a 'businessman' successful or otherwise as a President?
Is running America the same as a running a business? I think one could make a lot of arguments to suggest that there is quite a big difference in just about every aspect.
I am also curious about the rather pathetic faith held by many in the 'private sector' rescuing America. Didn't they play a large part in getting us in this mess in the first place? - banks? financial services industries?, car and other manufacturing companies? wholesale outsourcing of labor? maximization of profits and share price at the expense of actually producing products that sell? - Hewlett Packard as a role model, anyone?
If the Government is incompetent and it frequently is, the private sector has also had its moments, especially recently.

Jan. 26 2012 07:31 AM
Jeff from brooklyn, ny


So you, for one, would welcome your new Texas governor overlord? :)

I'm not sure that this should necessarily be seen as a liberal vs. conservative thing. Even reading rightblogs (which I do, trying to keep my mind wedged open) you'll come across more than a few comments by conservatives a little queasy that these candidates are the best the party has to offer. But it's what you get when you prioritize ideological purity over practical competence.

(It's also why I'm boggled that people still look to Chris Christie as a conservative savior — Christie is about ten notches to the left of any of the Tea Party's preferred candidates, and I sincerely doubt his popularity would sustain in the GOP candidates' spotlight.)

I might add that there are plenty of dumb and embarrassing liberals. They aren't the primary face of the Democratic Party, however. Realistically, the Democrats are constantly crapping on their base, while the Republicans bend over backward to cater to theirs. I don't know that using "liberal" as a stand in for "Democrat" even makes sense.

Nov. 29 2011 03:01 PM
brushfour from Madison Wisconsin

I'm wondering if Jeff Yang can get any more partisan. Paul Krugman is generally viewed as a fool. Professors usually make horrible political leaders having spent most of their lives hiding in academia and not learning or developing the leadership skills needed to hold office. Barack Obama is no dummy, but in my opinion he would lose substantially in a debate with and of the top 3 republican candidates who are clearly smarter than he.

Nov. 29 2011 02:42 PM
Karol from NYC

I hope whichever candidate in the Republican field is considered the stupidest by our liberal betters wins.

Nov. 29 2011 12:32 PM

Calvin Coolidge was an intelligent and capable man, as his long record of public service demonstrates. He was a first rate administrator, first rate legislator, and a first rate politicians. Amity Shlaes is writing a biography of Coolidge which will be out in the coming months.

Nov. 29 2011 11:02 AM

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