Newt Gingrich ran for the Republican nomination for the Presidency in 2012, and after competing for three months, dropped out of the race.
Actively seeking political office was something that Newt Gingrich had not done for some time. After leaving the speakership and congress in 1999, Gingrich worked as a political consultant and on the lecture circuit for the next decade or so. His entry into the nomination in the summer of 2011 was somewhat of a surprise, and some didn't think that his bid was a very serious one.
There are certain probabilities in dealing with Presidential elections (and nominations), and Gingrich was in some ways a bad fit. The standard positions before entering the Presidency were to be a Governor or a Senator, while Gingrich had been in the House of Representatives. He had been Speaker of the House, which is certainly a prominent enough position. Gingrich had also been out of political life for a while, with a decade gap between elected office and running a campaign somewhat unusual.
And yet he launched his campaign. And stumbled. And recovered. A pattern that would repeat itself several times. After launching his campaign, he took a cruise vacation, and most of his campaign staff resigned. He seemed to be a minor figure, but as the invisible primary went on, many voters saw him as the best conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, the "presumed frontrunner". A few weeks before the first contest in Iowa, he was polling as a frontrunner across the country. However, a barrage of negative ads focusing on Gingrich's past left him running far behind. Again, many considered Gingrich out of the race. However, in a few weeks, before South Carolina, Gingrich had a good debate performance and was moving into territory that was demographically favorable to him. He ended up doing well in that contest, and once again seemed to have a favorable road ahead of him.
In Florida, a state whose demographics should be fairly favorable to Gingrich, something new happened. Prior to this election, primaries were fairly sedate and polite affairs, concluded by a Gentleman's Agreement not to air too much dirty laundry. But this year, due in part to Citizen's United, there was a lot more money and a lot less scruples about using it. In the one week between South Carolina and Florida, over 10 million dollars were spent on attack ads against Gingrich. To put this in perspective, that was about as much as all advertising in the entire 2008 Republican Primary. After Florida, Gingrich's campaign would never regain momentum, with Rick Santorum instead taking on the role of conservative challenger. Although Gingrich would go on to win his home state of Georgia, he would win no other states, and would not even poll very highly in some states, such as Alabama and Mississippi. In early May, he officially suspended his campaign.
There are two major lessons that I learned from Newt Gingrich's brief political rebirth as a presidential candidate. One, described above, is that the media's treatment of Gingrich was not exactly fair. The writeup above delves further into the media and Gingrich, and while I don't agree with all its conclusions, it is easy to see what type of narrative was written by the media during the campaign. My own belief is that narratives are crafted by the media not so much for ideological reasons, but because narratives sell. Thus we had a narrative in 2012 where Gingrich played the temperamental underdog and Romney played the stuffed shirt, because it was an easy narrative to sell. The charges laid against Gingrich run the gamut. It is a little depressing that 18 years after I first heard the rumor that Gingrich served his then-wife with divorce papers while she was in the hospital with cancer, the story is still being repeated, despite never having been verified. Gingrich's expense account with Tiffany's, while sure to lose him points amongst populists, is not really relevant to his political career. His advocacy of lunar colonization, while perhaps not the most pressing issue on the political horizon, was not that odd of an idea. On the other hand, some of his other "scandals", such as his multiple marriages, his consulting for Freddie Mac, and his alienation of colleagues who have no ideological problems with him (such as Dick Armey) brought up questions about his ethics and temperamental suitability for positions of authority. So while politics is unfair, some of it is the bad type of unfair, while some of it is the good type of unfair.
The second thing I learned from this is the difference between political celebrity and winning elections. Much like Sarah Palin and Herman Cain, Gingrich was a popular author and speaker amongst conservatives, but this didn't translate into electoral success. In part, this is related to the above item: while someone's marital history or jewelery purchases don't matter for reading someone's book or hearing them lecture, it becomes an issue when that person is running for office. Also, to win an election in America requires more than a dedicated base of supporters, it requires a coalition.
As far as how his run for the nomination will look in regards to the rest of Gingrich's career, it will probably not be seen as a simple coda or as a defining moment. It, in fact, reinforced the basic view of Gingrich by many. His run altered between periods of skillful politics and self-centered bombast. Politically, he was a sprinter who couldn't pace himself. Depending on the twists and turns of the coming election cycle, Gingrich's 2012 run might ruin his reputation amongst conservatives, since he stayed in the race and split the conservative vote, costing Rick Santorum some key contests. Since this occurred at a point where he didn't have much chance of winning, it seems like he put his ego over a desire to see conservatives win.