Few presidential candidates have successfully emerged from the dark valley that likely awaits Newt Gingrich after his decisive loss to Mitt Romney in Florida’s primary.
After the Florida fizzle, Gingrich faces the prospect of a February freeze. Only seven states vote in February, and none of them tilts toward him. Michigan offers Romney a home-state advantage. In Nevada and Arizona, Romney will benefit from both a large Mormon population and conservative resistance to Gingrich’s more lenient policy on illegal immigration. The Gingrich camp hopes to contest caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota, but the former speaker may not win another state until Super Tuesday on March 6. That means Gingrich could go six weeks without a victory after his South Carolina breakthrough.
Since presidential primaries proliferated after 1968, few candidates have emerged as viable contenders from such a long drought. Usually, defeat becomes disqualifying. When candidates don’t win, more voters conclude that they can’t win—and view a vote for them as wasted. That self-reinforcing pattern almost always produces a death spiral.
In the modern era, just four candidates have defied this dynamic. None of them ultimately won nomination, but three came close, and all four revived enough to notch a series of late victories and emerge as powerful leaders in their parties. Their example may offer the best road map for Gingrich as he tries to advance from his Florida stomping and overcome the financial and organizational advantages Romney so powerfully displayed there.
In 1976, Ronald Reagan lost the first five primaries during his challenge to President Ford but then recovered to win in North Carolina and reel off a string of late victories that kept his hopes flickering until the GOP convention. In his 1980 challenge to President Carter, Democrat Edward Kennedy did not win outside of his home state of Massachusetts until late March, after which he captured a succession of big battlegrounds that pressed Carter until their party’s convention.
After his initial breakthrough in 1984, Democrat Gary Hart suffered crushing defeats to Walter Mondale in Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania—before recovering to win most of the major contests (including Ohio and California) during the campaign’s final six weeks. Hillary Rodham Clinton lost 10 consecutive races to Barack Obama in February 2008 before making an Alamo-like stand in Texas and Ohio in March that sent the two battling toe-to-toe until Obama finally outlasted her at the bell.
Each of these resilient candidates could draw on distinctive strengths not available to Gingrich. He isn’t as charismatic as Hart or as clearly identified as the champion of an ideological faction like Reagan and Kennedy were. His candidacy doesn’t carry the historical resonance of Clinton’s bid to become the first female presidential nominee.
But in other ways, these experiences can guide Gingrich. One important similarity is that each of these candidates revived in part because big blocs in their party remained dubious of the front-runner: Their recovery was partly a demand-side phenomenon driven by voters and interests insisting on an alternative.
That dynamic, though obscured by Romney’s Florida rout, has intensified in the GOP since South Carolina. As Bob Dole, John McCain, and other establishment Republicans moved to backstop Romney (with blistering attacks on Gingrich), such notable conservatives as Sarah Palin, Herman Cain, and Rush Limbaugh have rallied around the former speaker. Although Rick Santorum is still splitting right-leaning voters, that consolidating conservative support could help Gingrich recover, especially in Southern and heartland states with March contests.
But more important may be whether Gingrich can emulate the key lesson from these earlier revivals. All of these candidates reconnected with their coalitions by linking their candidacy to causes larger than their own ambitions. The best example came in 1976, when Reagan, starting in North Carolina, electrified conservatives by centering his campaign on opposition to Ford’s Panama Canal treaty. Likewise, Hart, as he revived, finally transcended weeks of debate about his personal fitness (“Where’s the beef?” Mondale had gibed) to reframe the race as a choice between new ideas and musty liberalism. Clinton linked herself to the aspirations of both women and the working class.
Gingrich has not made such a leap. His campaign argument with Romney has been almost entirely retrospective, over whose record points true right. To Jeffrey Bell, the research director at the conservative American Principles Project, the key challenge for Gingrich is to find “forward-looking” issues to crystallize his disagreement with the front-runner, “so he isn’t constantly having arguments about his history and Romney’s history.”
Inside Gingrich’s camp, key voices agree. Kellyanne Conway, his pollster, says that the campaign in February will seek opportunities such as high-profile speeches to sharpen policy disagreements with Romney over issues like education, health care, and especially taxes. “Issue after issue, Newt is clearly the much more conservative candidate on the vision thing, but nobody is talking about that now,” she says. “We’re going to change that.” Gingrich will need to do that if he is to follow, much less exceed, the path of the comeback candidates before him.
This article appears in the February 4, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.