Saturday, January 21, 2012

Uncle!

Okay, fine! Two weeks ago I declared the Republican primary over, and resolved to not speak of it again. Ever since, I've ignored the various dramas of the campaign trail, telling myself that they were the product of media boredom. None of this really mattered, right? Right...?

Doubts began to creep in.

You win, real world. I was wrong. Mitt Romney is still very probably going to win the nomination, but his sudden collapse in South Carolina has been breathtaking. Inevitable candidates don't just up and lose their 20-point leads overnight. To Newt Gingrich, of all people.

That leaves two questions. First, how could this even happen? People have accused the "anyone-but-Romney" theory of being too pat, but frankly, it's hard to explain the current movement in the SC polls any other way. Republicans never liked Romney, they still don't like Romney, and as the field narrowed, and as Romney's post-Iowa/NH sheen wore off, enough of them fled to a single competitor to put that competitor out in front. In other words, Romney's momentary polling surge was not the result of his being just-like-any-other-candidate, but a manifestation of the herd effect that bolsters primary winners. South Carolinians didn't switch into Romney's camp after Iowa because they learned to love the man, but because everyone likes voting for a winner.

And the second big question: if Newt wins today (as seems extremely likely), what then? I think that largely depends on what Rick Santorum does. If Santorum interprets a Gingrich victory as Romney being vulnerable and decides to stay in the race and test his luck further down the road, he'll continue to split the anti-Romney block and Romney will win. If, however, Santorum interprets his low vote total in SC as an indication of his campaign's inviability, then he may drop out and we'll suddenly have a two-man race (well, two and a half -- there's still Ron Paul). In that case... okay, Romney will still win.

Try as I might, I can't believe in Newt. Certainly, the developments over the last two weeks have been fun to follow. Newt's rise has reminded us all that even the most obvious political predictions can fall apart in the blink of an eye. But I just can't convince myself that anyone but Romney has a shot. Where is Newt's organization? His party backing? How can he sustain a lengthy campaign against someone as practiced as Romney? There's just no way, however long this drags out, that Romney won't grind his way out front. And there's little chance that Gingrich won't slip up and say something unbelievably stupid before the end. Remember his Fascist Moment two months ago?

So while perhaps the primary has become worthy of comment again, nothing's really changed. It's still Romney.

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