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So long, Newt. Hello, General Election.

Newt Gingrich

Newt Gingrich, photo by Gage Skidmore

Today, we bid adieu to Newt Gingrich, who officially announced he will end his campaign for the Republican Party presidential nomination. His campaign produced many memorable moments (check out this ABC video of Gingrich’s greatest hits), not least of which was his grandiose promise that by the end of his second term, “we will have the first permanent base on the moon, and it will be American.” Alas, after 354 days on the campaign trail and more than $4 million in debt, Gingrich only won two states (South Carolina and Georgia) out of the 38 states that have held Republican primaries/caucuses thus far.

Gingrich’s candidacy was one of several representing the “anything-but-Romney” insurgency within the Republican Party. But parties generally prefer not to drag out the nomination process too long, lest their attacks on each other serve to undermine their candidate in the general election. Plus, why spend time and money attacking each other when you can attack the other party’s candidate? There is typically a tipping point in the nomination process, usually defined by the number of states won in the process that makes it impossible for other candidates to catch up. It is at this point that the party must coalesce behind the candidate with the best chances of winning the general election and thus shift to building a coalition comprised of key constituencies within the party base and in the broader electorate.

But it can be a bitter campaign trail to this moment. After all, Gingrich went from chastising party infighting to “going negative” in ads in order to maintain momentum and stay relevant in the race. Earlier in the campaign, Gingrich reamed the news media for creating divisions in the party during a September NBC/Politico debate at the Ronald Reagan Library:

“I for one, and I hope all of my friends up here, are going to repudiate every effort of the news media to get Republicans to fight each other.”

Even in December, Gingrich said he would denounce anyone who went negative on his behalf:

"I’ll release a letter to my staff, to any consultants, and to any surrogates we have... indicating that should any super PAC that is doing so in my name attack any of my friends who are running, that I would publicly disown them and urge people not to donate to them."

By January, Gingrich officially did away with the “shades of gray in his anti-Mitt Romney ads” when the Super PAC backing him, Winning Our Future, produced a half-hour drama that attacked Romney outright. And in light of today’s official announcement, the Obama campaign released a new ad using fodder from Gingrich’s campaign to attack Romney. The snarky tagline: "Newt Gingrich: Frankly, not Mitt Romney's biggest supporter."

Even while pundits may be writing obituaries for his presidential campaign, Gingrich’s political career is far from over. (Let’s not forget that he and his wife Callista have published four books since he launched his campaign and another is set to be published this month). Indeed a brief look through recent political history demonstrates a number of candidates who have had unsuccessful presidential bids but continued to have successful political careers—in or out of elected office. Just to cite a few: Mitt Romney is exhibit A—unsuccessful in his 2008 presidential bid, now the party’s presumed nominee. John McCain was unsuccessful in 2000, but became Republican Party’s nominee in 2008 and remains in the Senate. And while the political class doesn’t really like to acknowledge Ron Paul, he continues to run for president, raise money, and serve in Congress, election cycle after election cycle.

The same can be said for candidates from the other side of the political aisle. After the bitter battle in the 2008 Democratic nomination process, Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State. Although Howard Dean was unsuccessful in his 2004 presidential bid, he became chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Of course, there are others who fall out of political graces (Dan Quayle, Gerald Ford, John Edwards), who are politically hurt in the nomination process for one reason or another (Rick Perry, Gary Hart), or probably just should not have been considered a serious contender to begin with (Herman Cain).

A broader point to make as we say so long and farewell to Newt Gingrich in this presidential race is that no matter how “interesting” the ideas or how long the nomination process drags out, when all is said and done, a wide range of candidates in the party nomination process encourages democratic practice. Even though the nomination process primarily draws the party base to the voting booth, it is still a critical component for debating and defining what is important both to constituents and the party in a particular election. It is also just as critical for establishing issue and policy priorities and for selecting the best candidate. After all, shouldn’t there be meaningful choices in a democracy?

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