WHEN Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign foundered last summer, leading to the mass resignation of his staff and reports that his campaign debt exceeded $1m, the problem was not that he seemed to prefer luxury cruises through Greece and Turkey with Mrs Gingrich (speaking, right) to the messy business of a political campaign. The problem, as he was only too happy to explain, was that “much like Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, I’m such an unconventional political figure that you really need to design a unique campaign that fits the way I operate and what I’m trying to do.”
What that meant in practice was shilling for money over the internet and turning in some incandescently angry debate performances. It worked, after a fashion. He began rising in the polls. He announced directly, “I’m going to be the nominee.” But then people started voting. The first three contests split, with Rick Santorum squeaking to victory in Iowa after spending far more time there than any other candidate; Mitt Romney winning New Hampshire, where he has a home; and Mr Gingrich unexpectedly trouncing the opposition in South Carolina. Then he lost Florida and Nevada in quick succession, his snarling pomposity punctured by a Romney barrage of negative ads.
The Gingrich campaign had a strategy, of sorts: their hero would win the South, ending with a victory in Louisiana’s primary on March 24th, whereupon momentum would work its magic. That did not happen. Aside from South Carolina, Mr Gingrich has won precisely one of the 38 states and territories that have so far voted: his adopted home state of Georgia. In late March he sacked one-third of his campaign staff. On April 3rd he decisively lost Maryland, Washington, DC and Wisconsin, his wife’s home state. Mr Romney improved his delegate total to 634 against 263 for his closest rival, Mr Santorum. The race now goes quiet until April 24th, when five states vote, the biggest prizes being New York and Mr Santorum’s home state of Pennsylvania.
For the Gingrich campaign, however, the real problem had become clear some time before this week’s results. It was the voters. They kept making the wrong decision. And so Mr Gingrich’s flack announced that they were going to be “focusing exclusively on what it’ll take to win what we’re going to be calling a big-choice convention in August.” In other words, having failed to appeal to a majority, or even a plurality, of voters—the people who ostensibly select the candidate—Mr Gingrich will appeal to their superiors to correct the peons’ error. During this campaign Mr Gingrich has consistently claimed that he frightens, and is running against, “the Washington establishment”, which is of course laughable; he served ten terms in Congress before becoming a “consultant”, think-tanker and free-floating policy wonk. This strategy buries even the pretence of anti-establishmentarianism.
Explore our interactive map and guide to the race for the Republican candidacy.He has since softened his stance a bit, but he has also vowed to stay in the race until Mr Romney clinches a majority. How long that vow will last is anybody’s guess. Sheldon Adelson, a casino magnate who, together with his family, has given Mr Gingrich’s Super PAC more than $15m, said that he believes Mr Gingrich is “at the end of his line”. A recent poll showed that 60% of Republicans want him to quit the race.
Acknowledging defeat will not be easy. The next presidential race will probably attract a more daunting field of candidates, leaving little room for a man who will then be 72 and whose House career ended in censure and disgrace. In stump speeches he has traced the origins of his presidential aspirations back to 1958, when he was 15 years old. In the early 1990s he described himself as an “advocate of civilisation, definer of civilisation, teacher of the rules of civilisation…leader (possibly) of the civilising forces.” Or possibly not.