The Ticket

Will Santorum and Gingrich ever bow out? History suggests odds of winning are very low

Jeff Greenfield
The Ticket

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Clinton's first appearance with Obama after exiting the primary. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The other day, preparing for yet another wipeout at the hands of primary voters, Gingrich put on his historian's hat to note that at "the last truly open convention," in 1920, Ohio Sen. Warren Harding came from nowhere to emerge as the Republican nominee on the 10th ballot.

Apparently, Gingrich's historian's hat had slipped down over his eyes. In a later open convention, in 1940, industrialist Wendell Willkie, armed with the support of the Republican media and a gallery full of backers chanting "we want Willkie," overtook Ohio Sen. Robert Taft and New York crime-buster Thomas Dewey and wound up as the victor on the sixth ballot.

More fundamentally, Gingrich's view of his current position reminds me of neither Harding nor Willkie. Instead, he evokes the Black Knight of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" fame. As his limbs are progressively hacked off, the knight declares "'tis but a scratch!" Then: "a flesh wound!" And finally: "Alright, we'll call it a draw." With barely a tenth of the delegates so far allocated, victories in two of 26 contests, and polling at 13 percent in Gallup's latest survey of GOP voters, Gingrich's rationale for remaining in the race is, to put it mildly, elusive.

And what of Rick Santorum, who has won 10 primaries and caucuses and runs a clear second to Romney in national polling? Is there a plausible reason, given Romney's huge lead in delegates, his massive financial advantage, and his growing support from once-neutral heavyweights, why Santorum will not heed the counsel of elders and cede the race?

A look back at contested primaries suggests that Santorum has a case, but a rapidly weakening one, that lies somewhere between trailing candidates who had no real choice but to withdraw, and those where there was a rational case for remaining in the contest.

[Related: Mitt Romney leads Rick Santorum in Wisconsin poll]

Just four years ago, we saw two candidates whose roads diverged after the first wave of contests left them trailing. Mitt Romney watched his plan for a decisive duo of early wins implode after Mike Huckabee won Iowa and John McCain won New Hampshire. When Rudy Giuliani quit the race, it left McCain in a perfect position to roll up a huge lead by capturing delegate-rich, winner-take-all states like New York, New Jersey and Missouri. Two days after the Feb. 7 Super Tuesday contests, Romney abandoned his campaign and then endorsed McCain at the CPAC convention.

By contrast, Hillary Clinton, victimized by the Democrats' proportional allocation rules, wound up in an effective delegate tie with Obama, even after winning the big Super Tuesday states. As I and many others have noted, had the delegate rules been reversed, Clinton would have come out of Super Tuesday with a huge lead, while Romney would have been tied with McCain.

After Super Tuesday, a series of primaries and caucuses in late February and early March left Barack Obama with a lead that, as his campaign kept emphasizing, would be very hard to erase. But it wasn't impossible. And as the spring progressed, Clinton won as many contests as she lost, batting Obama to a virtual tie in total votes. (If you count Florida, whose primary was invalidated for jumping the calendar, she actually won more votes than Obama.) Her hope was that the more than 400 "super delegates," who could support whomever they wanted, would come to a convention where the nomination was still up for grabs and would choose her as the more experienced, credentialed candidate. It didn't happen, of course, but it was a plausible, rational gamble.

That same calculation kept Colorado Sen. Gary Hart in the 1984 Democratic primary long after Walter Mondale had recovered from the shock of losing New Hampshire and had rallied to best Hart in Illinois and New York. With the primary calendar shifting to contests in his favor, Hart won 11 out of the last 13 contests, and would have won New Jersey as well but for a foot-in-mouth wisecrack about "toxic waste dumps." The plausible—though unlikely—hope was that the convention would pull back from the prospect of nominating a severely weakened Mondale, and would turn to a fresh, young alternative to President Ronald Reagan. (Hart's attempt to capture the nomination four years later collapsed after the famous "Monkey Business" incident brought his marital fidelity into question.)

So where does Santorum fit on the "Possible-to-Fugghedaboutit" matrix? Much more toward the latter, in my opinion. Had he won those close contests in Ohio and Michigan, he'd be in a much stronger position as a credible conservative alternative to Romney. As it is, he needs a dramatic series of demonstrations that this contest is not over, starting in Wisconsin on April 3 and continuing with unlikely upsets in New Jersey and California. (Note that, despite Romney's big poll lead in both states, neither of those states' Republicans are as moderate as their reputations; both have seen moderate favorites lose primaries to conservative challengers. So Santorum's chances in those states are thin, but not ludicrous.)

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There is, of course, one other reason for a candidate to remain in a race, even when there is no prospect of victory: when the candidacy is rooted in strong conviction. Ron Paul knows he will not be the Republican nominee; he has known it forever. But he is running to advance his views on everything from the gold standard to an anti-interventionist foreign policy. In 1968, Robert Kennedy's murder ensured the nomination of Vice President Hubert Humphrey, but the opponents of the Vietnam War were not about to let his nomination or an endorsement of President Lyndon Johnson's policies triumph without a fight to the finish.

If that is how Santorum—or for that matter, Newt Gingrich—sees his campaign, then no appeal to delegate math or party unity will work. As I wrote last week, they have enough support to challenge delegate allocation rules, launch platform fights and challenge Romney's vice-presidential choice.  If, however, they see a future for themselves in the party, as a possible future nominee (Santorum) or as an elder statesman (Gingrich), then a retreat from the field is a lot more likely once the reality of delegate arithmetic sets in. If the theme of this choice is the famous line from Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler"—"you got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em"—then the question is, what do Santorum and Gingrich know, and when will they know it?

Jeff Greenfield is co-host of PBS' "Need to Know" and a Yahoo! News columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @greenfield64.

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