I’m certainly not going to say that Saturday night was a good one for Mitt Romney, who got beaten solidly by Newt Gingrich in South Carolina (a scenario I’m afraid I called “an extreme long shot” last week). But while he would have shut down the nomination contest entirely by winning tonight, the truth is he’s probably a bit closer to winning it all now than he was after New Hampshire, and a lot closer than he was, say, before Iowa. A little history might help explain that.
In 1996, Bob Dole actually lost 5 of the first 6 states, although several of those had asterisks because they were jumping the line, and Dole (and some others) chose not to compete in them. Still, five out of six, including losing New Hampshire went to Pat Buchanan. And yet following those six states, Dole — it turned out — had basically won the nomination. Why? The most serious threats to him were Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, who was finished after a terrible fifth in Iowa, and then ex-Gov. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), who lost steam after finishing third in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Dole finished second in New Hampshire, but just behind implausible nominee Pat Buchanan, and there was never really much doubt that Dole would beat Buchanan one-on-one.
That’s essentially where the Republicans are now, after Newt’s strong upset win in South Carolina.
One-on-one, over the long haul, it’s highly unlikely that Newt Gingrich can beat Mitt Romney. It’s also unlikely that Rick Santorum, with a third place finish tonight, will have the resources to compete in Florida and beyond…it wouldn’t be surprising if he dropped out in the next few days, although it also wouldn’t be surprising if he stayed in just in case everyone else melted down. He may still be barely viable. Meanwhile, yes, lots and lots of Republican voters aren’t very enthusiastic about Romney, just as they weren’t very enthusiastic about John McCain in 2008, in Dole in 1996, or in George H.W. Bush in 1988. And with all of those unenthusiastic voters out there, it’s not all that surprising that we can see a lot of undecided voters swing one way or another in reaction to campaign events.
But Newt Gingrich remains almost as implausible a nominee as he’s been from the beginning of the campaign. He’s still the guy who has flipped on issue after issue after issue, including individual mandates on health care and climate change. He’s still someone who has ethics problems, and marital problems (yes, still). He’s still someone who isn’t much liked or trusted by those Republicans who worked with him when he was in office. He’s still someone who rarely goes a week without saying something that gets him in trouble. He’s still someone who has shown no ability to run a proper campaign — and while that doesn’t always matter, as we saw Saturday night, it’s apt to matter in some states, and in a hypothetical tough delegate battle, that matters.
South Carolina certainly has consequences. Had Romney won, it would have been clearly over, and the only question remaining would have been whether he would sweep the rest of the states or just most of them. Now, he’s going to have to fight for it…for a while. Even if he wins Florida and sweeps February, the press isn’t going to call it over until Super Tuesday in March, most likely. And, yes, it is still possible that he could somehow manage to lose the nomination (and, yes, I still think that if he loses it, it’s probably more likely he’ll lose to Santorum than to Gingrich). But it’s not very likely at all. So it’s a nasty bump in the road for Mitt Romney, but one that we’ll probably all forget by June.