Nightly News | December 13, 2011
BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Now we turn to presidential politics. Tonight, according to some of the very best people in the business of measuring the mood of the American electorate, there is reason to believe and numbers to support this theory that the United States is approaching a tumultuous and perhaps game changing election year. We've never seen the voting attitude exactly the way it is now. Tonight we're going to take a few minutes here to talk about this because of some data that was shared with us today. We have a new NBC News / Wall Street Journal poll debuting here tonight. But more than that, we have the pollster himself, and the rest of our veteran political team with us. Our political director Chuck Todd is here, as is the pollster Peter Hart , " Meet the Press " moderator David Gregory , and, from Washington , NBC 's Andrea Mitchell . And, Chuck , let's start with the hard numbers today and what they tell us.
CHUCK TODD reporting: Right. This poll that we have tonight is a tale of two Republicans with their own set of electability problems. Let's start with Mitt Romney . His electability problem is getting the Republican nomination.
COSTELLO: As you can see, Newt Gingrich has surged to 40 percent. That is the highest number any Republican has had since -- in the calendar year of 2011 , since we've started polling this primary. When the race shrinks down to three candidates -- Newt Gingrich , Mitt Romney , Ron Paul -- Gingrich 's lead expands, 53 percent to Romney's 31 percent.
COSTELLO: So what is Romney's electability problem? He is simply one word, and that is ideology. Seventy percent of Republicans call themselves conservative, 57 percent believe Newt Gingrich is one of them. Only 29 percent believe Mitt Romney is a conservative. That's the reason.
COSTELLO: So Newt Gingrich , he's got an electability problem, but that is in a general election . Mitt Romney and Barack Obama would be a neck and neck race, 47 to 45 according to our poll. Newt Gingrich different story. Fifty-one percent for the president, just 40 percent for Newt Gingrich . Independent voters, by the way, really are sour on Newt Gingrich . And look at this number. We asked, 'Who could you just not vote for?' Newt Gingrich hits the 50 percent mark. Half the country said they just could not vote for Gingrich under any circumstances. For Obama and Romney that's 45 and 44 respectively. To hit the 50 percent mark, though, a big deal. And why? Because Newt Gingrich 's image is the same as it was in October 1998 , the last time we polled him as speaker of the House . Look at this, 27-46 in 1998 ; his positive-negative rating now, 24-40. So two Republicans , two different electability problems.
WILLIAMS: Now, Peter Hart , you've been in this game a long time. You and your partner in polling, Mr. McInturff , came and briefed our staff today. And I don't think I've ever heard your assessment the way it was today. Give us the view of this country from, as they say, 50,000 feet.
Mr. PETER HART (NBC News/Wall Street Journal Pollster): From up above, it's terrible. Direction of the country , 70 percent the wrong direction. How are people feeling about this year? One of the worst years. When they look at this Congress , they say, 'This is the worst Congress I 've seen.' Every element -- 'How do I feel about the economy? How do I feel about America going forward?' Every element the American public comes up negative. There is no sense of optimism, there's no sense of hope.
WILLIAMS: Now, you were saying earlier today, if this is a so-called referendum election , which is a type of election that taps into a certain voter anger, it could be perilous for the current president.
Mr. HART: Absolutely. Because if it's an up or down with a 19 -- with 29 percent saying, 'I think the country 's going in the right direction,' you just can't make it. The sense of the president and the economy, he can't make it; but if it's a choice election , 'How do I choose between the two,' well, you just heard what Chuck said. Neither of the Republican candidates look all that good to the American public. Three flawed candidates.
WILLIAMS: Now, are you talking about a potential entry for a third party this year being a ripe possibility?
Mr. HART: Well, as Bill McInturff , my co-partner, he says expect the unexpected. And one of the unexpecteds is expect a third candidate in the race and to make a substantial difference. That will help President Obama .
WILLIAMS: David Gregory , there is a very energized right word facet of the Republican Party out there. What's fueling it, and what manifestation could we see?
DAVID GREGORY reporting: Well, the tea party effect. I mean, the tea party sentiment is driving the conservative base, and that's where Newt Gingrich does well. As Chuck pointed out, that's where Romney is still coming up well short. I think what Peter 's describing, what Chuck is describing is something we don't exactly know yet in terms of what's happening inside the Republican Party . They're rejecting the establishment candidate, and they're going back to a guy who 13 years to the day of the Iowa caucuses had his last day as speaker of the House . That's Newt Gingrich . He can take the fight to Obama , he can debate. Well, so, yes, he's erratic, he's still viewed very negatively, but he's leading that charge. There's so much emotion, there's so much passion in this campaign right now, Brian . I think that's what the driving force on the right.
WILLIAMS: And, Andrea Mitchell in Washington , I spoke to a veteran of the social wars in this country of a few decades back who said, 'Look for the summer of 2012 .' if this all -- if this spark becomes a prairie fire, look for the summer of 2012 , when we have two political conventions to look a lot more like the summer of '68 perhaps.
ANDREA MITCHELL reporting: Well, it could happen because you've got so much anger, so much frustration. The numbers that Peter cites and that Chuck has cited show that there's an extraordinary disaffection, a helplessness, a hopelessness and an anger at Congress and at all institutions. There's no respect for anything except perhaps the military here. And with that kind of anger building, and you've got the Occupy folks on one side, the tea party anger on the other, the possibility of a third party candidate, I think you could see a startling coalescing of forces in this coming summer with these two conventions. You don't know what to expect and it has all been so unpredictable up until now. Brian .
WILLIAMS: And, Peter Hart , as the veteran, the last word here. It's safe to say we haven't seen the country in this shape before, and we certainly haven't seen the electorate look like this before?
Mr. HART: Anger is all around. And the thing that most disappoints people in 2011 , and that is the declining middle class, the rich are getting richer. Big problem.
WILLIAMS: Chuck , Peter , David , Andrea Mitchell in Washington , thank you all.