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The Zombie Candidate: What Newt’s Campaign Looks Like Going Forward

After last night’s bitter defeat, Newt Gingrich is vowing to stay in the presidential race for a long, long time (“six to eight months” he said in Florida yesterday). Of course, that’s what candidates usually say just before and immediately after bitter defeats (see Jon Huntsman’s “Ticket to Ride” sound bite after finishing a poor third in New Hampshire), even if they have every intention of cutting a deal with a better-positioned candidate and getting off the campaign trail. But Newt may actually mean it, particularly if his sugar daddy Sheldon Adelson, who is largely financing his largely Super-PAC-based campaign, continues to write checks. Gingrich is reportedly very angry about the negative ads Team Romney used to bury him once in Iowa and bury him again in Florida, and he is unpredictable. Newt may well choose to hang around for a while yet as a zombie candidate. But his vows to take his campaign “all the way to the convention” are nothing more than bluster. Newt has no realistic chance of winning the nomination, and he almost certainly knows it.

Those looking for more optimistic historical precedents won’t have a lot to go on. Since 1972 (when the current nomination system came into place), there has been exactly one occasion when the delegate selection season ended with no clear nominee—the GOP contest in 1976, which pitted an unelected incumbent president against the universally acknowledged leader of the conservative movement. There has been one other occasion when the nomination was in some doubt going into the final stages of the primary season: the Democratic contest of 2008, when two historic campaigns slugged it out on relatively even terms for months, with a raft of uncommitted superdelegates having the theoretical opportunity to decide the contest. There have also been two instances—the Democratic contests of 1980 and 1984—when a late run of victories by a candidate on the brink of elimination has created some suspense. And there has been one other—the odd pincers campaign by Frank Church and Jerry Brown against Jimmy Carter in 1976—where “late entry” candidates made a splash.

But if Newt Gingrich were to stay in the race, he’d be following a different sort of precedent: candidates with no real shot at the nomination who have hung around anyway, because they represented distinct party constituencies (like Jesse Jackson in 1988) or because they hoped to benefit from a consolidation of “buyer’s remorse” voters after it was all decided (such as Jerry Brown in 1992, and, for a while, George H.W. Bush in 1980) to boost their status as Big Dogs. As was amply demonstrated by the attacks on Gingrich from conservative opinion-leaders after his win in South Carolina, he is not the universally acknowledged leader of an important ideological faction like Reagan in 1976 or Ted Kennedy in 1980. He also has none of the vast financial resources of a Reagan or a Kennedy, and given his consistently poor general election poll standings (especially as compared to Romney) he cannot make the kind of electability argument that supported Bush in 1980 or Hart in 1984.

And when you look at the actual timetable of this year’s nominating contest, it doesn’t give Newt a lot of natural advantages. In the February contests, he faces Romney in his home state of Michigan and Mormon-heavy Nevada, along with resource-intensive caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota—contests where Ron Paul is sure to split the anti-Romney protest vote. He’s not even on the ballot in Missouri.  His best shot is the Arizona primary, and that’s an uphill battle. It’s also not clear when (or if) Rick Santorum, who will take most of his votes from the pool otherwise available to Newt, will drop out.

His odds on March 6, Super Tuesday, are no better. Gingrich must win Georgia (particularly after his endorsement by fellow-Georgian Herman Cain), is not on the ballot in Virginia, can’t win in Massachusetts, and again has to deal with an assortment of expensive caucuses scattered around the country. If he survives all that, he must then navigate another series of probably-hostile caucuses before arriving at the cash-sucking oasis of Texas on April 3. Then comes April 24, when a battery of northeastern primaries (including delegate-rich New York and Pennsylvania) looks impossible. Remember, too, that the ban on winner-take-all primaries ends on April 1, which will help the front-runner bank big delegate totals.

Throughout this horrible gauntlet, Gingrich will be exposed to increasingly intense pressure from party leaders to get out of the race—or at a minimum, to play nice—even as Romney does what he likes. Mitt will probably begin skipping the candidate debates that have been the main source of oxygen for Newt’s campaign. And in general, the media coverage—even hostile media coverage—Gingrich craves would largely dry up.

Gingrich has very few reasons to stay in, and lot of reasons not to. He has always been the kind of political showman who is capable of expressing anger strategically, and then cheerfully talking with the objects of his bile. And he has already executed two miraculous returns-from-the-grave this cycle, so it’s not as though a departure at this stage would label him a hopeless loser. The strongest obstacle to a marathon might have to do with his personal bottom line: The more Gingrich’s chance at victory approaches a mathematical impossibility, the more he will sacrifice the future affection of rank-and-file Republicans—the same people he expects to buy the books and videos, and attend the lectures, on which he depends to afford Mediterranean cruises and Tiffany’s.

So yes, Newt can stay in for a good long while, and burnish his reputation as an unconquerable pain in the ass. But barring yet another strange twist, persistence is likely to earn him little other than enduring opprobrium from party elites. Sure, he’d have the pleasure of competing pointlessly with Ron Paul to trade last-ditch delegates for some early evening convention speaking slot where no one other than hard-core CSPAN viewers will even know he was there. But that’s about all. Newt may have a “ticket to ride” to the convention, but it definitely won’t be in first-class. Even Sheldon Adelson can’t afford to buy him that.

Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic, a blogger for The Washington Monthly, and managing editor of The Democratic Strategist.