03/15/2012 02:53 pm ET Updated Mar 16, 2012

Newt Gingrich's Candidacy Continues To Hurt Santorum, Unless It Helps, In Which Case, Never Mind

Former Speaker of the House and current presidential aspirant Newt Gingrich has only managed to win two contests thus far in the primary season, and this week he failed to advance his "Southern Strategy" any further when he lost Alabama and Mississippi to rival Rick Santorum. And for all practical purposes, that should have been that.

But Gingrich, as is his wont, is determined to soldier on. At the moment, his stated game plan is simply to be a force for denying Mitt Romney the nomination. But in the back channel, other ideas are swirling -- like the idea of a Santorum-Gingrich "team of true conservatives-slash-rivals." Diving deeper still, one can find others who claim that Newt is actually Mitt's "secret weapon." Someone you know on Twitter may already suspect that Newt and Mitt are in cahoots against Rick.

But all of this raises a legitimate question: Is Gingrich's continuing presence in this race a boon or a burden to Rick Santorum's upstart hopes? By a stroke of serendipity, two articles came across the transom this morning that promised to answer that very question. And as you might expect, they offered two completely different answers.

Over at TPM, Kyle Leighton writes about "How Newt Gingrich Is Killing Rick Santorum." How is he killing him? Well, he is denying Santorum votes that he might otherwise have gotten to slay the dread beast Romney. Maybe. Leighton gets Marist's Institute for Public Opinion's director Dr. Lee Miringoff on the record, saying that the campaign might change if Gingrich dropped out, but that "you can't just take the Gingrich supporters and tack them on Santorum." But Leighton nevertheless concludes there's something to this notion:

Yet the numbers show that Santorum would indeed be the biggest beneficiary of Newt dropping out, especially in what Illinois is shaping up to be -- a major flashpoint in the race like Michigan and Ohio, where Romney needs to prove his fronturnner status with a strong win as the media builds pressure on expectations of a positive result. Like the other "must-win" midwestern states before, Romney will continue to cast doubt on his frontrunning status if he can't get a big win.

Less than 10 days before the Michigan primary, Public Policy Polling (D) released data on the contest and the second choice of Republican voters. Newt was set to take 10 percent of the total, while Santorum and Romney were fighting it out for the top spot. When asked who Newt supporters would jump to if he left the race, it wasn’t close: 77 percent said they'd go to Santorum, 15 for Romney and 8 for Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX).

Numbers from Marist College before the Ohio primary were much less stark, but showed the same trend.

Besides, if we look backwards, it becomes academic. PPP Pollster Tom Jensen tells Leighton that if Gingrich had dropped out long ago, Santorum would have won Michigan and Ohio, the end. Jensen says: "Newt Gingrich has become Mitt Romney's best friend. His presence in the race at this point serves no purpose but to help Romney."

Okay, but what's the title of Scott Conroy's latest post over at Real Clear Politics? "How Gingrich's Candidacy Could Help Santorum." Oy. Okay ... let's hear it out.

If Gingrich were to drop out, various polls show that Santorum would garner the majority of the former speaker's support. Nonetheless, in a two-man race with Romney, the math is more difficult for Santorum, not less. Romney figures to win enough of the delegates Gingrich otherwise would have taken to prevent Santorum from overtaking him.

But by remaining a candidate -- even one who has almost no chance of accumulating enough delegates to win on the first ballot at the convention -- Gingrich could lay his hopes on the kind of behind-the-scenes maneuvering that denied Romney a West Virginia victory in 2008.

"People are assuming if Newt gets out, it helps Santorum because it sets up a one-on-one contest against Romney," said RealClearPolitics senior elections analyst Sean Trende. "But by Newt staying in, he's actually gobbling up some of Romney's delegates. And that's the name of the game at this point: keeping Romney below 1,144. So I think Newt staying in actually helps Santorum."

And for what it's worth, Nick Ryan, who heads up the Santorum-allied super PAC Red White And Blue Fund doesn't disagree with this premise:

"I don't think that's crazy, and I think it's possible that that prevents Romney from getting to 1,144," he said. "I think there's a few different paths to get to Tampa, and I don't know that you can look at any one today and say this is the path we need."

Conroy goes on to note that the Red White and Blue fund are "no longer making a direct pitch for Gingrich to drop out."

Who's right and who's wrong? It's tough to say. Speaking only for myself, I tend to favor delegate-based arguments over polling-share arguments. But at the same time, I tend to trust the analysis of pollsters over the analysis of super PAC proxies.

Maybe this is just one of those times where the best thing to say is that in all probability, none of us knows what we're talking about. So let's just say that Newt Gingrich's ongoing campaign is totally going to hurt Santorum, unless it doesn't, in which case, it won't.

How Newt Gingrich Is Killing Rick Santorum [Talking Points Memo]
How Gingrich's Candidacy Could Help Santorum [Real Clear Politics]

CORRECTION: This post has been updated to reflect a change to the identification of Marist's Institute for Public Opinion's director Dr. Lee Miringoff, who I had previously and mistakenly misidentified as "Paul Miringoff." Apologies to Dr. Miringoff for the error, which I regret.

[Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not?]