The end appears nigh for Rick Santorum. Having waged a campaign that took nearly every commentator, pundit and strategist by surprise, Santorum has now gone from rising star to desperate longshot. Leading Republicans have become increasingly vehement in their calls for the former Pennsylvania senator to quit before voters in his home state go to the polls on April 24. With surveys showing that Republicans are finally coalescing around Mitt Romney, should Santorum continue his campaign he will likely lose his own state. The ignominy that would accompany such a loss would inflict untold damage on Santorum's future in electoral politics.
Ultimately, however, whether Santorum chooses to continue or not, the instructive lesson to take from the 2012 primary season comes neither from Santorum nor from Romney. Instead it is Newt Gingrich who has given the public a sneak preview into the future of primary campaigns.
Nobody knows when the curtain will finally come down on the Gingrich campaign. At times it felt like only the lead actor ever truly believed the script was plausible enough to attract a crowd, but his perseverance paid off in a way few early reviews thought possible. Like many Broadway productions that run longer than expected, Gingrich 2012 even underwent a change of cast: most of his senior staff quit en masse last summer after Gingrich embarked on a ten-day luxury Mediterranean cruise with his wife just days after officially launching his candidacy. He muddled through the rest of 2011, drawing little attention as the GOP race descended into absurdity. Fourth-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire appeared to confirm what everyone knew: Newt Gingrich had zero chance of becoming the Republican challenger to President Obama.
And then the oddest thing happened. Gingrich won South Carolina, and he won it convincingly. Washington suffered paroxysms of alarm. As the Republican strategist Mike Murphy put it on Meet the Press the next day, “the reason that liquor sales in the last 24 hours have quadrupled in Washington is truckloads of champagne are going over to the Pelosi office and hard whiskey's going to the Republican office [is] because Newt Gingrich cannot carry in a general election a swing state if it was made of feathers.”
The Republican establishment needn’t have caused their livers so much damage. Despite winning two primaries (the other being his home state of Georgia, in which none of the other candidates competed), Gingrich was never a serious contender for the nomination. Of course, in a race that featured Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain, Gingrich was far from the lone quixotic candidate. Unlike the aforementioned troika Gingrich has stubbornly refused to withdraw. Why has he stayed in the race so long, and what does it portend for future primary campaigns?
A generous assessment of Gingrich’s decision to soldier on into the spring might conclude he was hoping to stay in the race long enough to play spoiler, pick up a few delegates, and perhaps win the odd state in the South. Doing so, the argument goes, would increase his leverage with the party’s frontrunner. Gingrich certainly ticked all three of those boxes, and Mitt Romney would undoubtedly love to never have to respond to another Gingrich broadside in his life. Having added to his hand a king, if not the ace he was hoping for, Gingrich seems reasonably well placed to ask Romney for a decent retirement present. Newt Gingrich, Secretary of Agriculture?
Cabinet posts are not the only patronage positions a president can dispense, but they are the highest profile, and a high profile is one thing everyone who has observed Gingrich over the years can agree he enjoys. Nor is it unheard of for a primary opponent to attempt to trade his exit from the race in return for a high-ranking position in a future administration. It is now well known, for example, that during the 2008 primary John Edwards offered to endorse Barack Obama in late January, after the New Hampshire primary confirmed Edwards had no hope of winning the nomination. As Obama’s campaign manager David Plouffe recounts in his book, The Audacity to Win, the Edwards offer was contingent upon Obama selecting him as his running mate. Obama turned down the offer, and Edwards eventually dropped out on January 30.
By staying in the race far longer than Edwards, has Gingrich accumulated more influence than if he had withdrawn after, say, his loss in Florida in late January? A thoroughly unscientific study of the historical record, slim as it is, suggests there is no correlation between the length of time a candidate remains in the primary and his odds of receiving a cabinet post should his party emerge victorious in November. I should emphasize just how slim this historical record is. One of the problems in analyzing presidential campaigns is the remarkable lack of data available. This problem is exacerbated when studying primary races. The primary system as we know it today only began in 1972, following the head-bashing chaos of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. But even 1972 was more of a dress rehearsal, since no candidate had ever experienced a national primary before.
The template for victory in a fifty-state primary contest is Jimmy Carter in 1976. Carter’s strategy that year—prove viability by winning or exceeding expectations in Iowa and New Hampshire; shore up fundraising, staff and endorsements; follow up with strong showings in other early states; ride the financial and press momentum generated by these victories to dominate the larger, more expensive states later in the calendar—has been adopted by every candidate since. Serious challengers in 1976, such as Frank Church and Jerry Brown, only entered the race at the start of May. They performed credibly, handing defeats to Carter throughout the country, but there was simply too much ground to make up in such a short period of time. Carter 1976 remains the gold standard.
Our analysis can therefore only begin in 1980. Which candidates, who won at least one state but never had a realistic shot at the nomination, remained in the race as late as Gingrich? Essentially we’re looking for the bronze medalist; a candidate who might have had a brief moment in the sun but who failed to mount a sustained challenge. This rules out someone like Hillary Clinton in 2008, or George H.W. Bush in 1980. We are left with only a handful of names: Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988; Pat Robertson in 1988 and Jerry Brown in 1992. Jackson was a far stronger candidate than Gingrich, especially in 1988, but since the Democrats lost both years we will never know if he would have been offered a cabinet position. However, neither Brown nor Robertson received a phone call from the presidential transition teams. If Gingrich is truly after a major role in a Romney administration then he probably did his chances more harm than good by refusing to bow out after Florida.
That is not to say an early exit makes sense for every candidate. For some, notably those in second place such as Santorum this year, it is sensible to remain in the race even after the frontrunner has reached the point where, in former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards’s memorable phrase, being caught with a live boy or a dead girl is the only way he can lose. As Romney’s main challenger, Santorum is a credible option to be selected as his running mate in the fall. Romney’s weakness with the conservative wing of the Republican Party is well established. When Santorum eventually does withdraw there will surely be calls from GOP officials for Romney to shore up his right flank by adding Santorum to the ticket.
The other historical parallel Santorum may be studying is the Republican Party’s tradition of nominating the runner up from the previous primary at the next election. John McCain, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan all fit this description. Santorum has already won more states than all of these men except for Reagan, and he presumably will add a few more to his trophy cabinet before the convention. If Santorum can continue to demonstrate his appeal to large sections of the Republican primary electorate, and especially if he can win a state outside of the South or Midwest, he will leap to the front of the 2016 Republican field (assuming Obama wins this year). Meanwhile, at 68 and having never held elected office in the 21st century, 2012 is surely Newt’s swansong.
Having ruled out a cabinet post, Romney’s running mate and frontrunner status for 2016, the only explanation left is the one in which we are on safest ground when discussing Newt Gingrich: ego. Like the sportsman who comes out of retirement because he cannot adjust to life without the cheering crowds, so too is Gingrich relishing his last chance to perform in front of a national audience. Nor is it an unfair character trait to append to a man who reportedly shut down the American government because the president sent him to the back of Air Force One. Of course, Gingrich is not the last egomaniac to believe he can become President; some would even say it’s a prerequisite for the job. And while there have been protracted primaries in the modern era—Clinton vs. Obama comes immediately to mind—rarely has a candidate as weak as Gingrich ploughed on so long. To illustrate how elongated this year’s Republican primary has become, consider that the last Republican to withdraw in 2008 was Mike Huckabee, on March 4. Four years earlier John Kerry had the Democratic nomination wrapped up after Edwards left the race on March 2. Despite his stunning victory in New Hampshire, John McCain—a much more viable candidate than Gingrich—bowed out of the 2000 primary on March 9.
Poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire traditionally sent a signal to voters, and particularly to donors, that a candidate was not viable. Money would dry up and it would become nearly impossible to continue to operate a campaign. Citizens United has obliterated that paradigm. The Supreme Court’s 2010 decision represents the greatest shift in the primary landscape since the Democrats rewrote their rules after 1968. The biggest beneficiary has been Newt Gingrich. Gingrich won a measly 13 percent of the vote in Iowa, and performed even worse in New Hampshire where he failed to reach double digits. In years gone by, Gingrich would have been forced to quit the race soon after New Hampshire.
But as Gingrich found out all it now takes is the support of one billionaire to keep your campaign alive indefinitely. For Gingrich, that billionaire is the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam. Adelson donated $5 million to the floundering Gingrich campaign after Iowa. When that failed to resuscitate the campaign Miriam kicked in another $5 million in the lead-up to South Carolina. And as if to prove that casino owners can be just as profligate as their customers, Adelson donated another $5 million in mid-February after it became apparent that Gingrich’s win in South Carolina was not the game changer they had hoped it would be. All told, the Gingrich super PAC “Winning Our Future” raised $18.8 million through the end of February, of which the Adelsons contributed $16.5 million. It is fair to say that without the Adelsons’ largesse, enabled by the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, Gingrich would have gone quietly into the good night.
As well as prolonging the primary, Citizens United also made it a nastier process. Mitt Romney ran a traditional, pre-Citizens United campaign. He performed well in Iowa despite the state not being a naturally fertile ground for his brand of Republicanism. In friendlier territory in New Hampshire, Romney won a convincing victory. He emerged from the Granite State as the overwhelming favorite and proceeded to South Carolina with at least one eye on the general election. What Romney’s campaign had not counted on was Sheldon Adelson’s checkbook.
Almost by definition, the only way a struggling candidate like Newt Gingrich can become relevant is to bring down the frontrunner. Gingrich decided to take the gloves off, and unlike in years past, the infusion of cash provided by Adelson allowed an also-ran like Gingrich to swing away. Romney suddenly began to resemble Gingrich’s personal punching bag and his favorability ratings declined precipitously. Romney’s campaign determined their candidate should refrain from hitting back because doing so would undermine his appeal to the kind of independents he needs to persuade in November. Romney had hoped to ignore Gingrich but after getting thumped by the portly Georgian in South Carolina he was forced to take seriously the Gingrich threat.
This left Romney in a political straightjacket. Unable to ignore Gingrich any longer, Team Romney unloaded its considerable resources on Gingrich in the ten days between South Carolina and Florida. The New York Times reported that, “Negative ads were so prevalent in the final week before the Florida primary that they accounted for 92 percent of all campaign commercials that ran.” Fully 68 percent of all ads in Florida in the last week were attacking Gingrich. It was a brutally successful assault. Romney thumped Gingrich in the crucial Florida primary. But the blowback was equally intense. As Ross Douthat explained, “The Gingrich revolt was temporary, but suppressing it came at a cost: Romney’s own negatives went up while his negative ads hammered Gingrich in Florida and Nevada.” It was the exact response the Romney campaign was so fearful of before South Carolina. Having suffered so much damage to snuff out the Gingrich flame, Romney once again backed off and returned to the center, allowing Santorum to pick up the anti-Romney banner Gingrich had dropped.
While we would prefer our candidates for high office to appeal to the better angels of our natures, the truth is that negative ads are extremely effective. However, they do come at a cost; as Romney found out, they tend to bloody the nose of both the aggressor and the target. Most primary campaigns, especially those of the frontrunner, usually refrain from going too negative too early. In this brave new world of super PACS, the old rules have been defenestrated. Flush with cash as a result of Citizens United, Super PACS have became the dominant force in the primary; in South Carolina, for example, the super PACS outspent the campaigns by a two to one margin. Provided they can find a benefactor, no longer will candidates who have little hope of winning the nomination be forced to quit the race after two or three states. The savage internecine battles of this primary season will become the rule, not the exception.
Gingrich 2012 has been a rollercoaster in which not even the candidate himself appeared to know whether the next turn would be up, down, left or right. Gingrich’s unique combination of the brilliant and the bizarre was on full display throughout the campaign. The same candidate who blew his miniscule path to the nomination by following his South Carolina victory with a momentum-destroying proposal to establish a colony on the Moon also delivered the most devastating attack on Mitt Romney. It was a campaign that delighted and confounded the punditocracy, but if nothing is done to reform campaign financing laws then historians may well look back on this primary and assign Newt a most unlikely place in history: canary in the coal mine.