What a difference a week makes. Just seven days ago – before the surprising (and potentially game changing) Santorum victories in the Dixie primaries in Alabama and Mississippi – Newt Gingrich’s press spokesman, R. C. Hammond, made a characteristically bold statement. Anything less than Gingrich victories in both Deep South states would signal the effective end of the former House Speaker’s campaign. The logic behind this was simple: if Newt couldn’t win in next-door states (he served as a Georgia congressman for decades), where could he win?
Well, he lost. In carbon copy results, Santorum won around a third of the vote in Alabama and Mississippi, with Gingrich at around 30%, and frontrunner Mitt Romney running just a whisker behind this. It was close, but the result was clear: Romney had failed yet again to end this whole thing by proving he could win in the GOP’s southern bastion; Newt’s dream had come to an end; and Santorum, far from his Pennsylvania home, had proven he could win across the country as the conservative champion (having already won in the Midwest and West). From here on out, it ought to be a straight and fascinating mano-a-mano contest between the unloved but favored Romney, and the organic, chaotic, shoestring-budgeted Santorum, who had at last emerged as the one and only non-Romney option the party has been so desperately thirsting for.
All of this analysis is spot on. It is entirely rational, but it is predicated on one fatal flaw: it fails to account for the almost limitless ego of Newt Gingrich, who in the most unseemly fashion will have to be dragged kicking and screaming from history’s stage. Newt’s ego is no trivial matter. Like it or not, his decision to leave the race and support Santorum (he personally despises Romney for running a slew of negative ads derailing his chances) or stay in the race and hand the crown to Romney, is by far the single most important factor as to how the rest of the GOP nominating contest will play out. As I stressed in my last piece, the math during Super Tuesday makes the whole calculation simple: two non-Romneys guarantees the frontrunner’s ultimate victory; one non-Romney has a real chance with the dispirited conservative base to dramatically upend him.
Many DC veterans such as myself suspected that despite this clear electoral math (and despite his genuine hatred of Romney) Newt would not go gentle into that good night. While Washington is a town of prima donnas, Newt still emerged there as a star opera singer. The anecdotal stories of his mammoth self-regard are legendary. A recent example will suffice. While campaigning in Alabama, the former Speaker decided to level with his audience, saying he wanted to be entirely clear: he was “a visionary”. Such a pronouncement is usually left to others. Faced with the personal hellish choice of wreaking revenge on Romney’s White House run by getting out (and presumably supporting Santorum while urging his delegates to do likewise) or basking in the limelight for just a little longer, I and many others personally suspected that a man who regularly compares himself to Churchill and Lincoln would find it very hard to let go, whatever the consequences. Therefore, I have long been wondering what Gingrich would say to justify prolonging his candidacy after the Dixie primaries, assuming that he lost.
Sure enough, last night there was a new, somewhat facts-challenged justification. Forgotten was all talk of the imperative to win in the Deep South. Also gone was all mention of a southern strategy to win the nomination for himself. Instead, the Speaker psychologically and usefully – if unconvincingly – combined his two great desires: the sabotage of the Romney candidacy and his desire to keep running for President. He would stay in the race even if he failed to win another state to stop Romney from accruing enough delegates to win the nomination on the first ballot. Given the insane system of proportional representation adopted by the GOP for the lion’s share of the primaries (see my previous articles for Aspenia online), two viable candidates nipping at Romney’s heels could do just that. Given that he is so distrusted by the conservative base, Romney would never bring the convention with him without having already secured a majority, and Gingrich would have stopped the forces of moderation in the GOP from hijacking the conservative movement. Or something like that.
As was true for Barack Obama during the final days of his epic battle with Hillary Clinton, what this all conveniently fails to reckon with is the chance that Republican superdelegates – paragons of the same establishment Gingrich professes to hate (despite being a member) – will see the undoubtedly front-running former Massachusetts governor falling just short of the magic number of 1144 delegates and – desperate to end the bloodletting – will decisively swing behind him. Newt’s new self-serving strategy can weaken Romney, but it cannot defeat him.
Rather, the only way for Newt to stop his nemesis is to fall on his sword. While the odds remain long, Santorum – the one conservative non-Romney left standing – could still stop the front-runner, if he were to broaden his base beyond blue-collar workers, evangelicals, and social conservatives. But for this to happen, Newt’s blessing (and the large share of his delegates) are absolutely necessary. They do not seem to be forthcoming. As such, due to the fevered mind of Gingrich, the prospects of the Dixie primaries amounting to a true game changer (which, in terms of the results, they should have) recede into the distance. Illinois – a state that is far less evangelical and conservative, and where polls show Romney slightly ahead of Santorum – will have its primary in about a week. With Gingrich in, the conservative primary vote will remain fractured, which makes it an uphill battle for Santorum and an ugly eventual win for Romney.
There is one large “if” to Newt’s folly. His primary backer – Los Vegas tycoon Sheldon Adelson – has recently made it clear that he feels he has already kept his promise to his friend by personally funding Newt’s Super PAC to the tune of around $15 million dollars; it is not altogether clear that Adelson will want to pour more of his money down the plughole for a candidate incapable of victory. If this is the case, Newt might be forced out, and soon – whatever his Napoleonic delusions.
Barring this, the Dixie primaries did prove oddly decisive. Not for the first time in history, the hubris of one man changed the course of politics.