The greatly diminished media coverage was a tipoff to the fact that not much of anyone thought Rick Santorum’s fairly decisive win (in the popular vote, anyway; so far he’s only won 10 of 46 delegates the state will ultimately take to Tampa) in the Louisiana primary on Saturday changed anything. If he intends to hang around a while, Rick better get used to it.
What most impressed me about the LA event was how declining interest in the nominating contest produced a primary electorate sufficiently rarefied as to produce a fantasyland for Santorum. Half of those participating in the primary defined themselves as “very conservative.” Half called themselves “strong supporters” of the Tea Party. Three-fourths were over the age of 45. Two-thirds claim to attend worship services every week.
Given the ideological cast of the Louisianans who bothered to show up to vote, Santorum’s sweep of most demographic categories was hardly suprising. Rick finally overcame the ignominy of being the Opus Dei-affiliated GOP presidential candidate who in state after state after state couldn’t win the Catholic vote against a Mormon. There is no telling how deeply that traumatized Santorum.
The only real question in terms of the consequences of this primary is whether Gingrich’s dismal third-place finish in a Deep South state would finally drive him from the field. But personally, I don’t see why he should bother to formally withdraw. What’s likely to get him more attention? The ability to horn in on presidential campaign coverage and occasionally get headlines for throwing a bomb at Mitt Romney? Or bending the knee in exchange for a three-minute speaking slot in Tampa, an opportunity to make surrogate appearances in non-competitive states in the fall, and then active consideration for a medium-level ambassadorship?
You have to appreciate that Newt still views himself as a world-historical figure, a colossus straddling two centuries whose greatness will be validated by his fellow-historians. His head regularly has to be deflated before entering rooms, a service that has drained far too much of his limited campaign resources. If he goes quietly, it won’t be out of any sense of self-proportion or party loyalty, but because it serves his own interests.
Meanwhile, Rick Santorum has entered the phase of the campaign where he’s spending half his time explaining why he’s still campaigning, which is the kind of thing that leads him to shout obscenities at reporters who are holding up a mirror to his fading image. One by one, conservative opinion-leaders are lining up to endorse Mitt or at least endorse a quick liquidation of the primaries. At some point before too long they’ll stop treating Rick like the skunk at the company picnic and start treating him like an enemy of the realm who will be punished by enternal banishment from Fox News or worse. But he’s already lost the ability to command major media attention. I’d bet in most local TV news markets around the country his Louisiana win got billed well below local traffic snarlups and fires, and perhaps just ahead of features on Easter shopping. It only gets worse from here.