I've been thinking a lot about this and I think there is a strong case for Newt to stay in the race. By staying in, he is probably hurting Romney, he is bringing important issues to the fore that only he can talk about in an educated and convincing fashion and, who knows, he could win (though it is very much a longshot).
Let's start with the first argument. So far, the only argument you can make for Newt to get out is that he is "splitting the conservative vote" and helping Romney get the nomination. But I'm really starting to think that the opposite may in fact be true and he is hurting Romney's campaign for 1,144 delegates by staying in (Scott Conroy's great piece helped convince me of this). When you first think about it, the "vote splitting" argument does make sense but it relies on a premise which is probably invalid, it assumes that a candidate's delegates are only his and there will be no alliances in the future where two camps get together. What has become clear is that at some point Newt and Santorum will have to join forces in order to stop Romney. So any delegates that Newt is taking from Santorum today, will likely return to Santorum later (assuming he continues to be the leading "not-Romney", you can make the same logical argument for Santorum staying in if Newt gets the lead again). And on top of those, Santorum will be getting Newt delegates that would otherwise go to Romney or Paul if Newt is not in the race. There are quite a few economic conservatives who are really turned off by Santorum's whiny preachiness and would rather go with someone not so extreme on social issues. Estimates are that a full 27% of Newt voters would go to Romney and another 16% will go to Paul. And if you assume that Ron Paul will inevitably team up with Romney at the convention (which is probably a fair assumption given their obvious collusion at the debates) that means that a full 43% of Newt voters might end up supporting Romney's delegate count. In other words, with Newt out, Santorum's vote count will only include those that prefer Santorum to the other candidates. With Newt in, assuming an ultimate combination, Santorum's vote count will still include those that prefer him, as well as some people who would have otherwise gone to Romney and Paul. This will help keep Romney from locking in the nomination with 1,144 delegates and also increase the chances that Santorum overtakes Romney's total delegate count, which would be important even if Santorum is short of 1,144.
Of course, this argument doesn't really take into account the fact that many states have 15% thresholds and so if Newt doesn't get higher than that in those states he actually gets zero delegates and all those Santorum votes will eventually be lost, hurting the not-Romney conservative campaign. Also, there is nothing that binds delegates to deals made at the convention. Just because Newt himself has called on his delegates to go with Santorum doesn't mean they actually have to go to Santorum. They can do whatever they want. Hopefully, the Newt campaign has picked people who are loyal enough that they will at least give him the benefit of the doubt. With that in mind, I still think the only argument for Newt to get out is probably not correct and net/net, he will be hurting Romney when all the votes are counted.
The second argument is that, among the candidates, only Newt seems to be able to latch on to the important issues of the day that ordinary Americans care about and speak about them in an educated and convincing manner. While Santorum is talking about pornography and contraception and Romney is stuttering his way through another explanation of Romneycare, Newt is talking about $2.50 gas. He even was able to force Obama to respond, essentially forcing Obama to debate when he clearly didn't want to. Not bad for the #3 candidate in a primary race huh? Having Newt out there constantly hammering away at the important issues and pointing out the flaws in the administration's logic is an invaluable service and helps the conservatives whether or not he is the eventual nominee.
The final argument is simple, Newt can still win. Sure, the chances are miniscule and are not something I would bet on. But I am from Massachusetts originally and the chances that Doug Flutie completed that Hail Mary pass to beat Miami were slim too. Here is what really needs to happen for Newt to win:
1. There HAS to be a brokered convention. Newt understands this already so I'm not saying anything new here, but I think there needs to be a change in strategy among Newt supporters. Recently, target #1 has been Santorum for obvious reasons, he is stealing voters who would otherwise go for Newt. But by attacking Santorum relentlessly, Newt supporters are actually helping Romney's vote totals as some Santorum supporters are turing to Mittens (who also happens to be attacking Santorum). This reduces the chances of Newt ever becoming the nominee since it brings Romney closer to getting to 1,144 and if we don't get a brokered convention, Newt is through. Done. Newt is sacked and there will be no hail mary pass. Newt supporters should keep picking away at Santorum, as the more votes for Newt the better, but the main focus of our ire should be Romney. It just doesn't do us any good if we destroy Santorum and Romney coasts to the nomination.
2. Newt needs to attract independent support. I'm sure you're thinking that he can worry about independents later, that he first needs to get the Republican nomination. I disagree. I think attracting independents will help him get the nomination whether or not they vote in the actual primaries. First, many people are voting for Romney because he is viewed as most "electable" which basically just means he is most attractive to independent voters. In the Ohio exit polls, 42% of voters said that electability was the most important candidate quality and 52% of those voters went for Romney. If Newt can steal some of this vote, this could do wonders for him and would help steal delegates from Romney, increasing the chances of a brokered convention. Which brings me to my next point, being more attractive to independent voters will also help Newt win a brokered convention scenario. Let's say the convention is deadlocked between Romney and Santorum, what would be the incentive for them to suddenly choose Newt? He needs to be the most electable candidate. If he continues to poll third in the head to head polls vs. Obama, he has zero chance. I realize polls can be wrong but people listen to them and there is no incentive for them to choose the person the polls say is the "worst" candidate. There will be about 10 weeks between the convention and election day, the bigger the deficit the greater the chance that the GOP candidate loses.
Newt is great at throwing red meat to conservative voters but what he needs to do now is find something to attract the independents. Gasoline sure helps as everyone understands that issue. Perhaps also differentiating himself with Santorum on social issues would work, obviously that isn't very hard. He should probably say stuff like "I am pro-life and believe marriage should be between a man and a woman but I think otherwise, the government should stay out of the bedroom. For as we know, government usually doesn't stop where you want them to stop. If you get them into your bedroom they also start going after your wallet". Something like that anyway. A pro-life libertarian argument could probably work wonders and attract quite a bit of support. If Newt comes across as the most reasonable, the most experienced and the most electable candidate, he could still win this.
3. Newt just needs to keep doing what he is doing in terms of his campaign events, focusing on the issues and making some of the best speeches of this cycle. He can't let attacks from any quarter get him off his game like Romney was able to do in Florida. In 1920, Warren G. Harding came in 6th in the first round of balloting with 6.7% of the delegates. It wasn't until the 7th round of balloting that he even broke through 10% of the delegates (he got 10.7% in that round). Eventually, people got really tired of the deadlock and decided on Harding as a compromise candidate, who won in the 10th round of voting and the general election. Now it is hard to be a compromise candidate if you've pissed off the other camps. So Newt just needs to continue to stay positive and try to ruffle as few feathers as possible. I know that is difficult in this race, which has become very personal, but that could be the key to him winning.
Here's to hoping.