What happens to a Southern strategy when a candidate can’t win in the South?
Newt Gingrich found out Tuesday night, with twin losses in Alabama and Mississippi one week after a big win in his home state of Georgia and an earlier victory in South Carolina. In Alabama, Gingrich lost to Rick Santorum, 35 percent to 30 percent, with Romney finishing two points back at 28 percent. Next door in Mississippi, Gingrich lost narrowly, but lost nonetheless, with 31 percent of the vote to Santorum’s 33 percent and Romney’s 30 percent.
With just two wins in the 25 states going into Tuesday’s contests, Gingrich’s poor showing in the evangelical-heavy states meant that the only real question left for him is how much longer he can last.
The party line from Gingrich, his staff, and his family is that the end is nowhere near. “I’m sticking to it, I’ll stay in the race,” Gingrich told Fox News at the end of the night.
Speaking earlier on MSNBC, Jackie Gingrich Cushman insisted her father isn’t going anywhere. “He is not going to drop out, he’s not interested in that.”
Even his wife, Callista, doggedly introduced Gingrich at his Birmingham victory party as “the next president of the United States.”
But the decision to stay in the race will not be Gingrich’s alone. More likely it will be up to donors to his campaign and super PAC, including billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who will have to decide if they are making a worthwhile investment in Gingrich and his ambitions or throwing good money after bad. No campaign can compete at this stage of a presidential race without significant funds to pay for staff, travel, and organizational muscle.
Gingrich alluded to possible money troubles in his speech Tuesday night, warning that the results will have at least a short-term effect on his campaign’s finances, as well as his message.
“What will become a challenge is we’ll now have three or four days of the news media saying, ‘Why doesn’t he quit?’” he said. “These are the same people who said last June that I was dead. The biggest challenge will be raising money because I came in second.”
But Gingrich also tipped his hand at his campaign’s real strategy, which is no longer to win the nomination outright but to make Mitt Romney lose by denying him the 1,144 delegates he needs to clinch the GOP nomination before the Republican convention in August. Gingrich has grown increasingly bitter toward Romney throughout the campaign, as the former Massachusetts governor has unloaded a barrage of attacks against the former speaker and, Gingrich believes, hurt his showings at the polls in the process.
“We are going to leave Alabama and Mississippi with a substantial number of delegates, increasing our total going toward Tampa,” Gingrich said.
Earlier in the day, his camp also circulated a memo declaring it “half time” in the Republican primary, with Gingrich, they argued, poised to win in the fourth quarter.
“The sequencing and pace of the second half favors Newt,” the memo read. “When this process started, Newt’s team had two goals: block an early Romney nomination; and plan for a sequenced and paced second half.”
The “second half” includes a complicated scenario in which Gingrich must finish strong in Louisiana, Texas, and California and then go on to “re-litigate” unbound party delegates before the GOP convention.
“So here is the bottom-line reality: this nomination will not be decided until the fourth quarter—and that is not until June,” the memo concluded. “It also means that the candidate who closes strongest in this race is going to win.”
Reality is indeed the bottom line, but unfortunately for Gingrich, so far reality seems to have eluded his campaign, which has planned seven events in the next two days in Illinois, and more thereafter.
Still, if history is any guide, Gingrich has shown a useful ability to recognize moments in his career when a quest can no longer go forward and when the time has come to step away from a fight.
In 1998, as he resigned as House speaker amid a revolt within the GOP caucus, Gingrich announced that he would also resign from the House entirely. “The Republican conference needs to be unified,” he said. “And it is time for me to move forward where I believe I still have a significant role to play for our country and our party.”
Whether Tuesday’s losses represent a similar moment will be for Gingrich and his backers to decide.