It’s one of the great untold stories of the 2012 presidential campaign, a tale of ego and intrigue that nearly upended the Republican primary contest and might even have produced a different nominee: As Mitt Romney struggled in the weeks leading up to the Michigan primary, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum nearly agreed to form a joint “Unity Ticket” to consolidate conservative support and topple Romney. “We were close,” former Representative Bob Walker, a Gingrich ally, says. “Everybody thought there was an opportunity.” “It would have sent shock waves through the establishment and the Romney campaign,” says John Brabender, Santorum’s chief strategist.
But the negotiations collapsed in acrimony because Gingrich and Santorum could not agree on who would get to be president. “In the end,” Gingrich says, “it was just too hard to negotiate.”
Romney eked out a three-point win in Michigan on Feb. 28 and was never seriously threatened again. While this type of elaborate scheming is more typical of political thrillers, it was real this time. A year later, many of those who worked to build the Unity Ticket still believe it could have been decisive.
“I was disappointed when Speaker Gingrich ultimately decided against this idea, because it could have changed the outcome of the primary,” Santorum says. “And more importantly, it could have changed the outcome of the general election.”
The discussions between the two camps commenced in early February, just after Gingrich got trounced in Florida. Brabender called members of the Gingrich brain trust, hoping they could persuade Gingrich to drop out and endorse Santorum, who was rising in the polls. “I’ll tell you this,” says Brabender, “If Gingrich had dropped out at the right time, Santorum would have been the nominee.” Brabender wasn’t short on moxie: He wanted Gingrich to declare in the middle of a nationally televised debate that he was dropping out and endorsing Santorum. “I couldn’t write an ad to match the political theater that would have created,” he says.
Gingrich had other ideas. He proposed that both men join forces but remain in the race, each concentrating on the states where he matched up best against Romney. Gingrich thought he could carry Georgia, Delaware, Washington, and Wisconsin (from which his wife, Callista, hails). Santorum would focus on other states in the South and the upper Midwest. But there was a catch. “The appeal of a Unity Ticket was strength in numbers,” says Kellyanne Conway, Gingrich’s pollster. “The big question was, who was going to unify with whom? Who was going to be the sheriff and who was going to be the deputy?”
Gingrich thought that he belonged on top of the ticket. “Our reasoning,” says Walker, “is that we had won a major primary at that point [South Carolina] and people like Rick Perry were coming on board. Perry had just endorsed Newt.”
To Santorum’s team, however, the Gingrich campaign was a sinking ship, and their own man was the obvious choice to lead the ticket. “At the end of the day,” says Brabender, “we won 11 states and tied two others. He won two states, which makes it only logical that Rick was the one who had earned the right to go one-on-one with Romney.”
Even so, the obstacles did not seem insurmountable. Both camps agreed that Romney was vulnerable. “If Romney had lost either Florida or Michigan, I believe the money people would have begun to abandon him,” Walker says. Both agreed that a joint ticket could catalyze the powerful “Anybody But Romney” faction already emerging among GOP primary voters.
There were potential drawbacks. “Once Romney had started rolling in Florida,” says Gingrich, “with the scale of money he had, he would have been very, very hard to slow down.” There was no way of knowing for sure that bringing the two candidates together on a Unity Ticket would also unify their donors and supporters. “It might have,” Gingrich says. “Or it might have just brought our weaknesses together.”
With the Michigan primary approaching, the timing was pivotal. “If Romney lost his home state,” says Brabender, “I believe it would have been difficult for him to ever recover.” At the very least, it would have scrambled the race, says Conway: “It would have created an X-factor that the Romney people were not prepared to deal with. I think there would have been a gang-up-on-Romney effect.”
The negotiations quickly intensified. “We had a series of closed-door meetings about it,” Conway says. Conway, Walker, and Randy Evans represented Team Gingrich; Brabender spoke for Santorum. “Initially, it was through staff,” Conway says. “Then Rick and Newt did talk by phone for quite awhile.”
Finally, the two candidates spoke face-to-face at an energy forum just before the primary. Gingrich made an elaborate historical argument that when the party hasn’t been able to agree on a nominee, it always settles on the senior figure. Santorum wasn’t persuaded, and urged Gingrich to do what was best for the conservative movement.
Neither man would yield. “I’d like to have had Santorum drop out, and he’d have liked me to drop out,” Gingrich says.
In the end, they both dropped out. Romney trudged on unimpeded, eventually emerging as the victor. And one of the stranger subplots of the 2012 race faded into history. “It’s one of those things that only happens in political movies, never in real life,” Conway says, wistfully. “But for a moment it was real. It was fun, it was heady, and—for those few weeks—it was real.”