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Patrick Hruby

Newt: Too Big to ... Not Fail?

Like any Republican presidential contender worth his salt, Newt Gingrich has a Southern strategy. That is: the former Speaker of the House-cum-self-styled debating Megatron (and more on that tomorrow)  would blunt the slow, punishing, inevitable advance of Mitt Romney's perpetual money machine in the land of grits, caring too much about college football and and eternally lingering Civil War/Civil Rights resentment.

After all, no one does the politics of resentment quite like Newt. Just ask John King.

Funny thing is, Gingrich isn't a lock to capture the deepest, reddest part of the electoral map. At least not in today's Alabama and Mississippi primaries, where polls show Gingrich in a dead heat with Romney, a.k.a. the Guy the Base Hates, because he's not one of them, and everyone knows he's not one of them, especially Mitt Romney.

So what gives?

I have a theory. Never mind that Gingrich is effectively splitting the anti-Romney vote with Rick Santorum -- is it just my conspiracy-addled brain, or does anyone else think Romney is secretly funding Gingrich to stay in the race for this very reason? -- or that voters are less likely to throw their support behind a third-place candidate who smells like an also-ran, or that Gingrich's main rationale for being president, a fever-dream pledge to smash empty-suit Harvard-educated con law professor Barack Obama and his no-good very bad liberal teleprompter in a series of debates, makes him a better candidate for yakking cable punditry than for handling nuclear launch codes.

No, I think the reason Gingrich is sagging is simple. He's sagging. Literally.

Which is to say: Newt is kind of fat.

America does not want a fat president. America is not ready for a fat president. Chris Christie was wise to sit this one out. I say this with no prejudice nor animosity toward overweight people; to the contrary, I understand how complex and difficult a challenge obesity can be. I understand because I recently wrote a Washington Times feature on anti-fat bias as it pertains to politics, and by the time I finished my reporting, I was convinced that Newt had no chance of winning the Republican nomination.

Here's why:

Anti-fat bias is real - and really, really powerful: Experts agree. The sociological research is there. National surveys have found that when Americans are asked if they have experienced discrimination because of a range of personal characteristics — including gender, age, race and sexual orientation — weight-related bias is the fourth most common form of discrimination reported by men and the third most common by women — more common for females than racial discrimination. Meanwhile, other studies have determined that overweight individuals receive worse treatment from health care facilities, educational institutions and even the media, where obese people remain popular and accepted targets of ridicule and have been held partially responsible for causing weight gain in their friends, rising fuel prices and even climate change.

Worse still, obese individuals suffer from negative stereotyping and are believed to be lazy, unmotivated, sloppy, dumb, dishonest and lacking in both willpower and self-discipline — hardly the sort of traits politicians want on their campaign bumper stickers.

Anti-fat bias is particularly harsh in the workplace: Several decades of sociological research indicates that obese job applicants are less likely to be hired and more likely to receive lower starting salaries than thinner applicants, particularly for positions that require frequent contact with the public. On the job, obese individuals are more likely to be fired, less likely to be promoted, and suffer a weight-related wage penalty.

In a relatively common experiment, human resources professionals are asked to evaluate a series of job candidate applications. The applications are identical, except for one detail.

“Only body weight is different,” Rebecca Puhl, a research director at Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, told me. “Obese applicants are perceived to be a poor fit for the position they’re applying for, even when they have better qualifications than a thin person. Employers would actually prefer to hire a thinner, less-qualified person."

What is a presidential campaign but the most public, protracted and perception-driven job interview in the world?

Anti-fat bias affects politics: Asked two years ago about a possible 2012 presidential bid, chubby Mississippi governor Haley Barbour said, “If you see me losing 40 pounds, that means I’m either running or have cancer.” He was only half-joking. In a 2009 poll of likely New Jersey voters, 19 percent said they were less likely to vote for Christie because of his weight.

Similarly, a 2009 study of 50 state governors by political analyst Nate Silver found that 10 were overweight and only three were “clearly obese” — a tellingly low percentage, given that the federal government reports that two-thirds of American adults are overweight, with one-third qualifying as obese.

Despite all of the above, there are ways for heavyset candidates - particularly chubby males - to limit the negative impact of their girth, and occasionally even use anti-fat bias as a rehtorical weapon. (At the state level, Christie has proven adept at this particular bit of political jujitsu, as I explain more in my full article). Thing is, I don't see Newt doing this. I don't see him doing much of anything. I see him literally and figuratively hiding behind debate lecterns, as if he's hoping that no one notices what's on the other side.