It used to be that if you won Florida, New Hampshire and (almost) Iowa, you'd be a shoo-in for the Grand Old Party's presidential nomination. But the Republican Party changed the rules this year so that even runners-up like Newt Gingrich can take a percentage of the number of delegates needed. It's why Gingrich, who won nearly 32 percent of the votes to Romney's 46, can say with confidence that he's going to run in every state in the union. We may see a winner as late as March if candidates other than Romney don't run out of money first.
The changes to those rules also mean that Republicans have a chance to tear each other apart for much longer than in the past. And Romney and Gingrich have sharper claws than most. Over 90 percent of TV ads in Florida were negative. Most of those came from Romney's camp, which had to win decisively after losing to Gingrich in South Carolina, and all of them are the result of the US Supreme Court's 2010 ruling that said spending money on politics is the same thing as freedom of speech.
The big news is that a crack that emerged after South Carolina is now widening. While Romney appeals to mainstream Republicans, Gingrich is courting the party's right wing. In exit polls, voters describing themselves as "very conservative" or supporters of the Tea Party got behind Gingrich. Conversely, four in 10 voters still don't think Romney is conservative enough. This likely stems from his past as governor of Massachusetts, a dependably liberal state, where Romney ushered in universal health care, aka "Romneycare."
A lot has been said about Ron Paul, the classical libertarian, and the viability of his forming a third party. But Gingrich might turn out to be the choice to lead such an insurgency. He will likely do well in the American South, where his dog-whistle tactics earn him praise, and establishment Republicans hate him. Matt Drudge, the conservative behind the Drudge Report, devoted more negative stories about Gingrich than to any other candidate. Gingrich, who loves to play the victim, could parlay that into a possible underdog strategy.
Surprisingly, voters worried about Romney's conservative credentials don't seem worried about his Mormonism. In fact, Romney's religion thus far has been a non-issue, even for Gingrich, who appears to have no scruples when it comes to attacking rivals. On primary day, he even said Romney, as governor, had barred Holocaust survivors on public assistance from eating kosher.
As Rick Perlstein wrote in Rolling Stone, Republicans have a history of changing their religious beliefs to suit their political circumstances, and that the rank and file know how to fall in line. In 2008, John McCain failed a similar purity test, but then the entire political machine got behind him when he won the nomination. This may happen again with Romney even though he's tepid on issues mattering most to Tea Party conservatives, like federal deficits and immigration.
Romney lost South Carolina in part because he was thinking about President Obama. He corrected course in Florida, where we saw the former private-equity executive do a little mud-slinging. It worked, and it may keep working, and this is the central difference between now and four years ago. In 2008, two establishment guys, Romney and McCain, took pains to avoid wounding each other before the big fight. With Gingrich, none of that matters. He taught Washington to get nasty. With him, and these new party rules, we're going to this get a whole lot nastier.
John Stoehr is a lecturer in English at Yale University.