LAST CHANCE

03.13.12

Can Newt Gingrich Hang On After Alabama and Mississippi Primaries?

The media drumbeat for Gingrich’s exit is growing louder. Howard Kurtz on whether Tuesday’s voting in Alabama and Mississippi, where he’s neck and neck with Santorum and Romney, could seal his fate.

Is it time for Newt to go?

The press sure seems to think so.

Just about everywhere the former House speaker shows up, he is dogged by the same questions: Why are you still in this thing? You can’t win. You know you can’t win, right?

This is coming to a head because of Tuesday’s voting in Alabama and Mississippi, and it could be another late night. Although the conventional wisdom initially held that Mitt Romney would not be terribly competitive in the Deep South, the numbers tell a different story. Maybe things turned around when Mitt declared he likes grits!

The latest Public Policy Polling surveys have Gingrich barely edging Romney in Mississippi, 33 to 31 percent, with Rick Santorum at 27. And in Alabama, a photo finish: Mitt 31, Newt 30, Rick 29.

What’s happening here isn’t hard to discern. Since Gingrich and Santorum are both doing well in the two contests, they are divvying up the hard-core conservative vote, creating an opening for Romney to sneak through with a narrow plurality. (Get ready for another round of TV pundits saying it was a lousy showing because Romney didn’t win by much—if he manages to pull out either state.)

In Mississippi, 44 percent of voters describe themselves as “very conservative,” and Romney is getting just over a quarter of them. But since Gingrich leads Santorum only 35–32 with this group, it keeps Romney in the hunt.

So what are the stakes? Romney can afford to lose Alabama and Mississippi since he’s, well, a former moderate from the Northeast. Oh, and there’s this: Linda Davis, a retiree in Pascagoula, Miss., told The Washington Post: “I wished he wasn’t Mormon. I wished he was Christian.” Then she reconsidered and added, “I never had any problem with Donny Osmond being Mormon.” (Guess the commentators overlooked the Donny factor.)

Santorum would get a major burst of momentum by winning the two states after his victories in Kansas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Colorado, Missouri, and Minnesota—showing he can compete across the country. (Not to mention his near misses in Michigan and Ohio.)

Which brings us back to Newt.

His spokesman strongly suggested last week that Gingrich would no longer be viable if he lost the two Southern primaries, prompting the Georgian to repeatedly declare that he wasn’t getting out, no way, nohow. (In a similar dance, Fox News reported that Gingrich was considering naming Rick Perry as his running mate, prompting protests from the Gingrich camp that this was untrue. Oops.)

So let’s assume he stays in the race regardless of whether he wins or loses by a few points in Alabama and Mississippi. Why the media clamor to get him out?

The cable shows feature headlines such as “Boot Newt?” When he was on the Sunday shows, the inevitable questions arose. “Given the fact that you are both conservatives and you say that Romney is a moderate, at some point does it make sense to get out and give Rick Santorum a shot at Romney?” Chris Wallace asked on Fox News Sunday.

Bob Schieffer put it this way on Face the Nation: “A group of conservatives—social conservatives, people like Tony Perkins, the Family Research Council, and others—said this week that you could be a kingmaker. That you ought to get out of this and throw your support to Santorum. What about that?”

They’re just questions, to be sure, but the constant repetition tends to drown out whatever message the trailing candidate is trying to convey.

What’s slightly odd about this, despite the well-known journalistic tendency to turn on political losers, is that the press used to love having Gingrich in the race. He’s colorful and quirky, accessible and unpredictable—everything that Romney is not. Forget about Gingrich’s attacks on the “elite media.” That doesn’t bother us. We think he’s playing to the base and doesn’t really mean it.

So here’s the deal: political reporters (and some of them admit this quite openly) want the primary campaign to go on. Otherwise they’re looking at five months of near unemployment until the conventions. If Gingrich and Santorum keep splitting the righty vote, Romney will slog closer to the magic number and effectively put the race away.

But if Gingrich heads to the showers, a Romney-Santorum slugfest could go all the way to Tampa. And that incites visions of every journalist’s fantasy, a brokered convention.

Should all this influence the coverage one iota? Of course not. But that’s the way the media-politico complex works.

So if Gingrich loses Alabama and/or Mississippi, expect the chatter about whether he should pull the plug to grow louder. And if he wins both states? He may have a few choice words for the pundits who keep writing him off.