When an election is some time away, pollsters typically ask people, "If the election were held today, who would you vote for?" It often seems like a silly question, because of course the election isn't today. But eventually, today comes. We imagine that up until the election, people's beliefs about the candidates are unformed and not held with much conviction. But as Election Day approaches, those beliefs harden, to finally come to fruition in the vote.
And for some people that's true. But for many others, even the decision they finally make on Election Day could be different if the election were moved back a couple of weeks. Which is why it's now entirely possible that Newt Gingrich, possibly the most repellent, unelectable political figure America has seen in the last couple of decades, could actually be the Republican nominee for president.
Think of a Republican-base voter—let's call her Gladys. At first, Gladys had no idea whom she supported. Then Donald Trump played with getting into the race, and though it seemed a little crazy, Gladys thought Trump was a compelling figure. But then Michele Bachmann came along, saying things that just tickled Gladys to death. She was all set to support her. But then Rick Perry got into the race, and now it really seemed like he was Gladys's choice. He seemed like a true-blue conservative, and someone with a real record of accomplishment. But then he turned out to be kind of a nincompoop, and Herman Cain looked like such a straight-talking breath of fresh air. But then he had his issues, and now Gladys has been convinced that Newt Gingrich is her guy.
The point is that though she never had to, Gladys was willing to vote for each of these candidates at one time or another. It isn't as though she had a stated preference for Perry, but if you shoved her into a voting booth she'd say, "Oh, if it's an actual vote, well in that case I'll pick Romney."
So in this primary, timing is everything. We've all assumed that Newt Gingrich, who is now clearly leading in the polls, would self-destruct before anyone actually had to vote for him. But now all he has to do is hold out for 28 more days, which is when the Iowa caucuses take place. If he wins there, he'll get a wave of positive news coverage (look for Time and Newsweek covers with headlines like "The Return of Newt"), and he could actually pull out a win in New Hampshire, where like everywhere else, few people feel that strongly about Romney, even when they support him.
Of course, between now and then, Romney will have to unleash some vicious assaults on Gingrich, and there is plenty of material with which to construct them. Gingrich could plummet next week. But Newt becoming the Republican Party's nominee for president—an utterly absurd notion for every minute since it was first floated back in 1994—could actually happen. Dear god.