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Yet Iowa native Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) won the straw poll and finished sixth — behind Santorum, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Rep. Ron Paul (Texas), ex-Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and even Texas Gov. Rick Perry in the caucuses in January. She did beat former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who didn’t compete in the caucuses, and businessman Herman Cain, who had ended his bid in December.
Cain isn’t supposed to happen either. Voters usually want their candidates to have some experience in elective office and to be running some sort of real campaign before they say that they will support him or her. And yet Cain’s electoral experience consisted of losing a Senate primary bid in Georgia in 2004, and his campaign was essentially nonexistent when he catapulted to the front of the GOP pack in polling in October 2011.
Gingrich isn’t supposed to happen either. Two adulterous relationships. Three wives. Freddie Mac. Tiffany’s revolving credit card account. Widely disliked by the former Members of Congress who worked most closely with him. And he leads the GOP race at one point and wins the South Carolina primary on the strength of support from highly religious voters?
And it isn’t only the rules that have changed. The political landscape is different, too, undoubtedly undermining the old rules of the political game.
Super PACs now rival the parties’ campaign committees in electoral effect, and party leaders, who have been overshadowed by talk-show hosts, social media gurus and tea party activists.
If so many rules have indeed been broken, maybe it is possible that other rules will fall too this cycle. Maybe (though probably not) Gingrich will rally again, much like Richard Nixon came back from being rejected in 1960 and from utter humiliation after being forced from office only to reemerge eventually as an elder statesman.
Or, maybe Republicans will head to Tampa without anyone locking up enough delegates to assure his nomination, creating a “brokered” convention. Of course, this can’t happen these days — much like all of the other things that can’t happen these days but have already occurred.
But before you agree that everything we have come to know is now irrelevant, that all of the rules have changed, consider this. If Romney does indeed hang on to win his party’s Republican nomination, regardless of how he does it, his victory will reinforce the most important rule of them all — that Republicans invariably nominate the next guy in line for the nomination.
Romney ran a strong race four years ago, and with financial muscle and the establishment’s backing, he entered this contest as the “next” Republican in line and therefore the frontrunner for the GOP nomination. If he is his party’s nominee, that rule will remain intact, at least until 2016.
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report