Rick Perry drops out and endorses Newt Gingrich. Reminder: he endorsed Rudy Giuliani last time around.

Presidential nomination politics is fascinating in part because all of the drama that only counts around the margins in most elections really can make a huge difference in nomination politics as it’s currently practiced. Candidates and their campaigns really do matter. Campaign events — the perfect ad, the debate gaffe or great line, the press conference gone awry — really can make a difference to voters with few cues to use to choose between nearly identical candidates.

Of course, structural things matter too. That’s why I thought Rick Perry was a viable contender a year ago, when he was saying he wasn’t running; it’s why I think he still was viable, despite all the disasters of his campaign, as late as mid-December. As it turned out, it was Rick Santorum who caught the late bounce and “won” Iowa, but it’s worth pointing out that Perry wound up only 3500 votes behind Newt Gingrich for 4th place, and only 14K votes behind Ron Paul for third. On the one hand, that’s a solid drubbing, no question. But one good ad, or one slightly better and slightly more redeeming debate performance, and it’s easy to imagine things working out very differently. Because Perry still had plenty of structural advantages that could have turned a somewhat better finish in Iowa into a very strong campaign down the line.

But it was not to be. Perhaps it was Perry’s position on immigration, or even more so the way he talked about it (calling those who opposed him heartless). Perhaps it was just that Republicans couldn’t handle the debate performances. Perhaps it was the memory of George W. Bush — before Perry entered, a lot of pundits (but not me) said that there was no way another Texas governor would be nominated so soon after Bush, and perhaps there was something to that. Perhaps Perry’s gaffes would have been excused a little more easily if they didn’t remind people, somehow, of what happened the last time Republicans decided that policy knowledge was irrelevant and nominated Bush.

As Buzzfeed is saying, “running for president is hard.” Perry was a lot better at it in December and January than he was in the fall, but it was too little, too late.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.