The irresistible human impulse is to find meaning amid the chaos of the cosmos. But some external events defy rational categorization. So it was with Thursday afternoon as Donald Trump endorsed Mitt Romney—an event so bizarre that the tight-lipped Romney was forced to admit, “There are some things you can’t imagine in life. And this is one of them.”
This was slow-news-day stuff, the diversions that long primary seasons are made of, but it was not without its poignancy: I couldn’t help but notice that among the first commercials that appeared on Fox News after the Las Vegas endorsement handshake was a spot by the pro-Gingrich SuperPAC Wining Our Future. It came across like the advertising equivalent of a Japanese soldier holding out on a tiny Pacific atoll because he did not know the war was already over. Indeed, by every conventional calculation, the Republican race is kaput. The candidate with money, momentum, mainstream appeal and muss-proof hair is destined to prevail in the end. That is how the world has always worked since 1976, when Jimmy Carter became the last outsider to corral a presidential nomination. Rick Santorum’s Iowa onslaught and Gingrich’s South Carolina surprise were the outliers, those unplanned but brief interludes in a presidential campaign when voters (and even the press pack) forgot that the wheel is rigged.
And yet. Maybe it’s pure stubbornness, maybe it’s a reluctance to listen to Romney recite the lyrics from “America the Beautiful” from now until November, or maybe it’s a small child’s refusal to believe that the circus is leaving town—but I keep wondering whether the fat lady truly has sung. Without fully dissenting from my colleague Ed Kilgore’s Gingrich-is-a-goner assessment, I keep picking up small signs that Romney may still be a little less inevitable than he seems.
On primary night in Florida, despite the plaintive signs reading, “46 STATES TO GO,” Gingrich finally tamed his public anger at Romney and returned to his South Carolina style of talking “about the power of ideas.” Romney’s scorched-earth campaign to neutralize Newt in Florida may have been a Pyrrhic victory—it gave the former Massachusetts governor the big primary win that he craved, but it also provided Gingrich with the motivation (namely: revenge) not to surrender until the Tampa convention. With no debates until February 22 in Arizona, Gingrich may struggle to hold a national audience, but he at least seems to have regained his handle on the affirmative—rather than petulant—tone that carried him to victory in the first southern primary.
National polls have largely been over-hyped throughout the campaign, even when they were not showing Trump with a lead. But now, as the GOP campaign begins to hopscotch from state to state, they are worth watching. For all of the news of a Romney romp and for all nonstop negativity about Newt, the national surveys remain closer than might otherwise be expected. The Gallup five-day national tracking poll, which includes surveys taken after the Florida primary, shows Romney narrowly ahead of Gingrich by a 31-to-26-percent margin with Santorum hanging in there at 16 percent. This may be a lagging indicator, but it may also signal that many Republicans have reservations about Romney and his centrist record as governor of Massachusetts.
While it may not prove fatal to Romney, it is still an open question whether he can win in the South. According to exit polls, Gingrich beat Romney by better than a two-to-one margin among evangelical voters in South Carolina. Even in Florida, where Gingrich and his allies were outspent by a four-to-one margin on television, the former House speaker narrowly edged Romney among born-again voters. In similar fashion, Gingrich’s strongest region was the Florida Panhandle, which can serve as a proxy for the Deep South.
Ironically, Gingrich’s short-term political future now depends partly on the coverage decisions made by what he calls the "elite media," the very people he has spent much of his campaign denouncing. February is a slow-moving interlude on the political calendar with four low-turnout caucuses (including Saturday in Nevada) and two end-of-the-month primaries in Arizona and Michigan. If Romney racks up expected victories in these caucus states (probably in large measure because of his superior organization and funding), will major news organizations treat the Super Tuesday (March 6) primaries and caucuses as a mere formality on the way to a Romney ratification? Or will the media restrain its rush to judgment and continue to cover the Republican race as a contest rather than a coronation?
Watching Donald Trump cavort in the limelight Wednesday afternoon, I recalled that he is a man of many bankruptcies and many autobiographies. His ghost-written 1997 version was called Trump: The Art of the Comeback. Gingrich—who was mistakenly ballyhooed by the New York Times, Politico and the Associated Press as the candidate about to be blessed by Trump—might consider picking up a copy for inspiration. These days, The Art of the Comeback is selling for 99 cents—or about the value a Trump endorsement.
Walter Shapiro is a special correspondent for The New Republic. He also writes the “Character Sketch” column for Yahoo News. Follow him on twitter @waltershapiroPD.