The Atlantic’s Molly Ball has a sharp piece on the surge of Newt-mentum that has engulfed the Republican presidential primaries. Going beyond the now standard explanation of a conservative electorate’s wandering eye searching restlessly for an alternative to Mitt Romney, Ball gives order to that quest:
The revolving-door nature of the 2012 Republican primary has been much noted. But it's not Groundhog Day. Conservative voters don't wake up every day with no memory of what came before and then decide en masse, like goldfish, that there's some new candidate they want to reward with their momentary favor.
Rather, it helps to consider each candidate who's found temporary favor as a reaction to what came before. Michele Bachmann was legitimate, compared to Donald Trump, and authentically passionate, compared to Tim Pawlenty. But she lacked heavyweight experience -- so along came Rick Perry. Perry had a great resume, but he was a terrible salesman, so Herman Cain, the ultimate salesman, came along. Cain, though, ultimately couldn't be taken seriously, and he was too much of an unknown quantity.
Gingrich, whose persona is multifarious, manages to embody the response to all the the flawed contenders who preceded him. He has the credentials Bachmann lacks. He's articulate, and then some, as Perry is not. Unlike Cain, he's already been vetted -- his baggage, though ample, is already well known. As Garp says after watching a plane hit the house he wants to buy in the movie version of "The World According to Garp: "It's pre-disastered. We're safe here."
Extra points to Ball for the Groundhog Day and Garp references.
But her point raises another question: When and where will the conservatives’ quest end? If Gingrich flames out (as it is widely assumed he will, being his own worst enemy and all), who’s next? Part of that answer depends on what quality proves Newt’s undoing: Lack of discipline, abrasive persona (though Ball argues that he’s quite charming on the stump), shifting policy positions (see his views on the individual mandate).
And increasingly that answer will also depend on the calendar and the rest of the field. Newt’s time in the spotlight will carry us into December at least. If he can survive to the onset of the Christmas celebrations, he might coast right into the Iowa Caucuses. And even if he doesn’t, who’s left for the GOP field to crush on? Does anyone really think that Ron Paul or Jon Huntsman is going to get a turn in the spotlight? Or that Rick Santorum—who lost his last political race by 18 points—is going to get one?
It is conceivable that if/when Gingrich fades, conservatives simply won’t be able to coalesce around a not-Romney, fracturing the field and allowing the former Massachusetts governor to coast to the nomination.