Newt Gingrich Probably Can’t Win, but That Doesn’t Mean He’s Going Anywhere

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Marianne Todd / Getty Images

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich speaks at a rally March 8, 2012 in Jackson, Mississippi.

There are two realities on the campaign trail: the one visible to dispassionate observers, and the reality the candidate inhabits. In Newt Gingrich’s bubble, Super Tuesday was a triumph: the benchmark he set was to win his home state, and he coasted to victory. Remove the rose-colored glasses and the landscape looks uglier. Gingrich won just one in 10 states, and finished dead last in half. Overall, Gingrich has won just 2 of 22 contests thus far, lags a distant third in the unofficial delegate counts, and would need to capture some 70% of the remaining delegates to eclipse Mitt Romney’s edge. It would take an “act of God,” one of Romney’s advisers said, for Gingrich or Rick Santorum to prevent Romney’s coronation. The math suggests they can only postpone it.

Of course, each rival’s chances increase with the exit of the other, which is why Santorum’s camp is trying to push Gingrich out of the race before the uphill climb to oust Romney gets any steeper. Over the past 48 hours, a chorus of Santorum supporters has called on Gingrich to step aside. “Based on his electoral performance last night and his out-of-step record, it is time for Newt Gingrich to exit the Republican nominating process,” wrote Stuart Roy, an adviser to the pro-Santorum Red, White and Blue PAC. “His campaign is an obvious non-starter.” A cadre of veteran social conservatives backing Santorum — including Gary Bauer, Richard Viguerie and Tony Perkins — have all urged Gingrich to step aside to give movement conservatives a chance to deny Romney the nomination. In an appeal to Gingrich’s vaunted vanity, Perkins suggested the former House Speaker “has never been in a more influential position in deciding the outcome of the nomination; he could be a kingmaker if he stepped out of the race.”

But Gingrich’s political obituary has been written before, and he’s not ready to bury his campaign yet. “Despite the many requests by the Washington establishment, I am staying in this race,” he said Wednesday. Again, his campaign has set itself benchmarks to continue: victories next Tuesday in Alabama and Mississippi, Deep South states where Gingrich — who has only won in the South — believes his firebrand style has the greatest resonance. Gingrich canceled a planned trip to Kansas in advance of the state’s caucuses on Saturday to shore up his Southern base. Gingrich has been open about a path to the nomination that begins and ends in the South. R.C. Hammond, Gingrich’s spokesman, said this week that the candidate needed to win “everything from Spartanburg [South Carolina] all the way to Texas,” but insisted the race would continue for “months.”

There are obvious problems with this strategy. First, localizing a campaign in a single region — the heartland of the Republican Party — undercuts Gingrich’s assertion that he is the only candidate capable of taking to the fight to Barack Obama, whom the GOP nominee will need to beat in swing states (and red states that Obama turned blue in 2008). Alabama and Mississippi also allocate delegates proportionally, so it will be difficult for Gingrich to make up much ground even if he revives his campaign there. And that’s hardly a guarantee. Despite the import he’s accorded the Alabama primary, Gingrich came in third in the first two polls out of the state; an Alabama State survey released Wednesday (which curiously omitted Ron Paul) showed Gingrich nine points behind Santorum, and a poll released Thursday by the Alabama Education Association showed him 10 points behind Romney. Santorum’s super PAC has purchased TV time in both states in an attempt to finish Newt off. “Newt has become a hindrance to a conservative alternative,” Roy of the Red, White and Blue PAC said.

It may make little sense for Gingrich to get out now, however. With Sheldon Adelson footing his TV budget, Newt needs only to maintain enough cash to ferry him around the country, where his message can speak for itself. There is little incentive to bow out when he can keep collecting delegates on the cheap, thereby increasing his leverage when it comes time to barter down the line.

Even if he were to exit, Gingrich’s supporters wouldn’t necessarily file into Santorum’s column. Crunching the numbers from polls that asked about voters’ runner-up preferences, Nate Silver estimates that 57% of Gingrich fans would migrate to Santorum, with 27% lining up behind Romney and 16% picking Paul. (As Silver notes, the model ignores that some likely wouldn’t vote at all.) That would be a significant boost to Santorum. But at this point, having confined his campaign to states where he has a viable chance of winning, Gingrich’s share of the vote in many others is essentially negligible; according to Silver’s model, his absence wouldn’t, for example, have changed the outcome in Michigan, where Romney won an uncomfortably close three-point victory.

Whether or not he can notch the necessary victories next week, Gingrich will soon be forced to consider how the terms on which he exits the race will affect the goals with which he entered it. Gingrich had been out of government almost 15 years when he entered the fray, long enough that a chunk of the new party establishment — and much of the national press corps — never witnessed him at the height of his powers. For a long time, his bid was maligned by the press as a glorified book tour, a way to soak up the national spotlight and convert the exposure into cash. But in many ways, Gingrich has burnished his standing in the party, with a knack for rhetorical flourishes and forceful rhetoric that none of his rivals can match. “He’s the only guy left who’s a real performer, who’s got the ability to whip up a crowd,” says a senior adviser to a rival campaign. Gingrich knows he possesses this gift, and as long as he has it, he will go on trying to convince the party to buy into reality as he sees it.