According to the latest tallies, Newt Gingrich has defeated Mitt Romney in South Carolina by 14 points, after trailing him by double-digits just a few days ago. Yes, that's pretty astounding. So what does this mean for those of us who study parties for a living?
Readers will recall that I have strongly endorsed the Cohen et al. book The Party Decides on several occasions. I consider this probably the most important book on presidential nominations in print. I am currently teaching it to my undergraduates, and I subscribe to its thesis that party insiders determine nominations. It would be hard to read this book and come away thinking that anyone other than Romney will be the Republican nominee this year. After all, he's had a strong advantage in insider endorsements for the past year, and polling suggests that while he's certainly not everyone's first choice, he's a lot of people's second choice. That is, he's broadly acceptable within the party, even if most people aren't enthusiastic about him. That's classic nominee material. (The one important caveat is that a lot of insiders have declined to endorse so far.)
Newt Gingrich, conversely, is precisely the sort of candidate who should not win according to this theory. He has astonishingly little support among Republican insiders. (Indeed, the opposite: Republican elites have gone out of their way to trash him.) He has little money. He is sustained only by his savvy use of the media. Previous candidates who have attempted this path to the nomination include Jerry Brown '92, Howard Dean '04, Gary Hart '88, Mike Huckabee '08... basically, the really interesting losers. No one has pulled this off, really, since Jimmy Carter in '76, and that was before party insiders had learned to master the post-McGovern-Fraser-reforms system.
So, as I've said before, this contest is turning into a fantastic test of the Cohen et al. thesis. If Gingrich were to somehow win the nomination, that would be pretty astounding, and we'd have to say that the system has changed. Perhaps the overwhelming number of debates changed the dynamic, and party insiders didn't control those as well as they can control primaries. Perhaps the rise of Super PACs made a difference, allowing a very, very small number of eccentric wealthy people to have inordinate influence over the contests.
Again, my assumption is that the system has not changed significantly, and that party insiders will rise up again to crush Gingrich as they did back in December. And Lord knows they have the material to do it. But at the very least, this is already becoming a more interesting contest than most of us predicted.
Update: For more on this topic, be sure to check out Nate Silver's post, although you probably already have.