The media loves a horse race. The always-quotable Newt Gingrich makes for great copy. His victory in the South Carolina primary gives the former House Speaker momentum. But, whatever fireworks erupt now and then, there's little reason to doubt that Mitt Romney will be the party's chosen candidate when GOP holds its convention in late August. Quite simply, Romney has the organization and discipline to win the nomination while Gingrich does not.
Organization first. Having run for the Republican nomination previously gives candidates an enormous advantage in seeking it again. Since 1968, all but one Republican candidate has always been either an incumbent president or someone who has made a previous run for president. The one exception, George W. Bush, could draw on his father's national fundraising network and likely outperformed in some early polls because people thought he was his father.
The advantage of having run before is built into the Republican party's basic structure: the Party has a trivial number of super-delegates and nearly all of the grass roots organizations its base groups around -- houses of worship, local chambers of commerce, and farm bureaus--have great local autonomy. The result is that simply locking up support leaders South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (a Romney backer) and the group of evangelical leaders who endorsed Rick Santorum doesn't translate into votes by itself. Instead, candidates and their surrogates have to spend thousands of hours courting the support of small business leaders, clerics, and others with decidedly local influence. Because candidates' time is limited, there's no way to "buy" or "fake" this type of support. When an first-time presidential candidate with a message voters want to hear focuses lots of resources on one state, as Gingrich did in South Carolina, it's possible get this "grass tops" support in that state alone and parlay it into victory. But there simply isn't the time to build such networks everywhere. As a result, candidates with enormous personal popularity (Rudy Giuliani), near-limitless funds (Steve Forbes), and great personal charisma (Mike Huckabee) have ended up losing nominating contests because they didn't have the time to build the needed networks.
But discipline also matters. Particularly for people used to living in luxury -- and both Gingrich and Romney have -- running a campaign is difficult. The hours are long (6 a.m to midnight), the hotels often sub-par (Clarion Highlander in Iowa City anyone?), and food not-all-that-special (turkey sandwiches). Sticking with this requires more than hard work alone: it requires real discipline to keep on doing things that aren't that pleasant. And Gingrich, a libertine who has had three wives, is prone to say outrageous things, and couldn't even be bothered to proofread his work when he wrote for a magazine I helped to edit, simply doesn't have the discipline or self-control to manage. If he doesn't do himself in with another trademark outrageous statement, there's an equal chance he'll just tire of the rigors of campaigning. And there's some chance he may simply self-destruct for no reason. The famous incident where he threw a temper tantrum and shut down the government over airplane seating was not an exception. When I worked with him at the American Enterprise Institute, Gingrich once became angry at me when I told him that I wouldn't have time to visit the zoo during a planned trip to New Orleans.
Gingrich can reasonably expect a spike in the Florida polls soon -- he led Romney there as late as January 8 -- and could conceivably hang on to win the state. But he's not in it for the long haul. Whatever ups and downs his campaign experiences, Mitt Romney will still clinch the Republican nomination by the late spring.