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Gingrich Death Watch May Be on Hold

After Newt Gingrich’s defeats in Mississippi and Alabama this week, the expectation in some quarters was that the former speaker would realize  he had no hope to win the nomination and bow out of the race. Certainly that’s what Rick Santorum and his supporters were hoping. It would set up the one-on-one matchup with Mitt Romney that they think will give him a chance to turn the GOP race around. Though there have been signs some in Gingrich’s campaign are looking for the exit signs, the candidate is giving no indication he’s giving up yet. Last week, I came up with seven reasons why Gingrich won’t quit, and I think they are still valid. But apparently he has come up with another one to justify the continuation of his presidential run: staying in the race hurts Romney.

This seems counterintuitive as Gingrich’s presence on the ballot diverted a portion of the conservative vote away from Santorum and probably cost the Pennsylvanian first place finishes in Michigan and Ohio. It might do the same next week in Illinois, a primary that could be a turning point in the race should Santorum pull an upset. The idea put forward by Gingrich’s camp is that because the GOP’s rules this year have encouraged proportional delegate allocation, keeping the nomination battle a three-way race (not counting libertarian outlier Ron Paul who is polling in the single digits just about everywhere these days) means Romney will be deprived of the ability to rack up large delegate hauls, thus making it impossible for him to reach a majority before the convention. Though this is a weak argument, it may be all Gingrich requires to justify continuing his ego-gratifying presidential run.

This thesis is endorsed by Michael Steele, the former Republican National Committee chair who is largely responsible for this scheme in the first place and is rightly reviled by most in the GOP for doing so. Steele told the New York Times a Santorum-Gingrich double teaming of Romney would be a bigger burden to the frontrunner than a setup in which he was forced to confront a single conservative opponent.

There is, however, a fatal flaw in such thinking. After April 1, there are nearly as many winner-take-all primaries scheduled, including important races in Wisconsin and California, as there are proportional ones. Others will elect delegates on a winner-take-all basis by congressional district. In such states, Gingrich’s remaining on the ballot would almost certainly help Romney.

What Gingrich really seems to be hoping is that by staying in the race and accumulating more delegates even while losing he would increase his leverage if neither Romney nor Santorum secured enough votes to win the nomination on the first ballot. Though one could argue his leverage with Santorum will never be higher than it is today should he be willing to make a bargain of some sort with the Pennsylvanian, Gingrich’s dream scenario is really one where he could play the kingmaker at Tampa with Romney or with some theoretical dark horse who might emerge from a deadlock.

In a year where so much that was unexpected happened, we should all hesitate before scoffing at Gingrich’s reasoning. But this still seems to be more science fiction than political science. The plain fact of the situation is that unless Gingrich gets out and/or gets behind Santorum, the odds are Romney will wrap up the nomination by June. If Gingrich, who seems motivated as much by hatred for Romney as by his own ambition, seems to be working at cross purposes to his own interests, all we can say is anyone who remembers some of the bad judgment he showed in the speaker’s chair knows this wouldn’t be the first time he has done so.