A presidential nomination cycle like no other we’ve seen

South Carolina hasn’t fired a shot this revolutionary since perhaps its tragic and ill-fated firing on Fort Sumter in 1861.

Newt Gingrich roared back into the 2012 Republican presidential race by generating a huge swing among South Carolina voters in the last seven days of that state’s primary. The Gingrich tidal wave among voters gives a new meaning to the word volatile. In one week, Mitt Romney went from being measured for a mantle of inevitability after having won Iowa and New Hampshire and possessing a double-digit lead in South Carolina to being pulverized in the Palmetto State after an Iowa recount awarded the Hawkeye State to Rick Santorum. We now have had three contests with three different winners: Iowa (Santorum), New Hampshire (Romney) and South Carolina (Gingrich). 

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Now it’s on to Florida, larger and more diverse than the three previous states combined. Polling shows that Gingrich has soared to a lead over Romney there.

This election cycle offers insights into the future. First, the electorate — at least Republicans and the independents in states where they can participate in Republican primaries — are extremely restless and unpredictable. There are fewer hard-core allegiances to individual candidates, and voters are far more prone to switch to another candidate really late in the contest. 

The surge to Gingrich in South Carolina culminated in the tidal wave that swept all in its path after his Thursday night debate body slam of CNN’s John King less than 48 hours before voting began. The voters’ reaction to Gingrich’s incandescent response to King reveals a palpitating hostility to the elite electronic media’s perceived and deeply resented pro-Obama bias. 

Second, the debates have effectively nullified financial and organizational campaign advantages. Political professionals will tell you that Romney is the only Republican candidate with what they consider a well-financed and traditionally organized national campaign. Yet, candidates who face crippling financial and organizational disadvantages have demonstrated at least temporary viability through charisma and great debate performances. And Santorum continues to be a factor because of his virtually last-to-first ascendance in Iowa. 

The current cycle’s debate prominence has proved a free-market version of campaign finance reform, giving long shots a decent opportunity to become viable through sheer talent and star power, regardless of their fundraising weaknesses.

Third, there is enough angst in the American electorate about the future of their families and their country that they are more willing to seriously consider candidates who in more-average election cycles would be perceived as too weighed down with personal and/or professional baggage.

Gingrich, an obviously gifted and eloquent speaker with a well-informed and nimble mind, is the living embodiment of what many liberals believe an oxymoron: a conservative intellectual. In the past he has also been mercurial and unpredictable in both his professional and personal life. 

For those of a certain age, the remaining GOP field reminds them of some of the cast of the fabulously successful TV series “Happy Days.” Santorum is Richie Cunningham, the bright, earnest student body president who will grow up to be a solid citizen and probably president of the Rotary Club. Romney is Mr. Cunningham, Richie’s father, a stable provider and businessman. Gingrich is the Fonz, Arthur Fonzarelli, who steals the show and the series. It was originally intended to be Ron Howard’s (Richie Cunningham) star vehicle, but from the Fonz’s first appearance all eyes were on him. He was the hot ticket, and the series often revolved around him and his escapades. 

While Gingrich is ahead in the polls, the majority of likely Republican voters — according to Rasmussen — still believe Romney is going to be the eventual nominee. Why? Well, I think it is clear that while the Fonz is the most charismatic character on “Happy Days,” Richie and Mr. Cunningham certainly appear to be more stable and successful husband material. And picking a president is in some ways similar to picking a spouse. You’re going to be living with that person and his or her decisions every day for at least four years. Gingrich’s unfavorability rating (56 percent) more than doubles his favorability rating (27 percent) with the general populace in a Fox News and Opinion Dynamics poll. 

Gingrich’s challenge will be to get a majority of Americans to believe in his potential to settle down to the task and be the president they need him to be. After all, in “Happy Days,” Mrs. Cunningham always saw more potential in “Arthur” than the other characters. And as we all know, mothers often know best.

Land is president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.