Newt Gingrich declared confidently that he would get his name on the ballot for the Republican presidential primary in Virginia. In fact, he said he already had the requisite 10,000 signatures and an additional 2,000 to 3,000 for safety's sake and would probably collect even more.
But that turned out not to be the case. In the wee hours of Saturday morning, the Virginia Republican Party announced via Twitter that Gingrich had failed to submit enough signatures by the Thursday deadline, highlighting the organizational challenges to his campaign and raising questions about his prospects in a drawn-out nominating fight.
Many of the Gingrich campaign's signatures were apparently invalid, which is why most campaigns try to collect almost twice as many as needed. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota also failed to make the ballot.
The Gingrich campaign said it would work with the Republican Party of Virginia to pursue a write-in campaign, but Virginia does not allow write-in names in its primaries.
"Voters deserve the right to vote for any top contender, especially leading candidates," Michael Krull, Gingrich's campaign director, said in a statement.
This misstep is bad news for Gingrich on several levels. Virginia is his adopted home state. Failing to gather enough signatures in your own backyard creates an image problem, at the very least.
"It's a disaster for him," said Larry J. Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "This sends yet another signal to Republicans that Gingrich is not able to organize."
He added that such a lack of organization "suggests you're not a serious candidate."
The failure to get on the ballot in Virginia could also shake the confidence of voters in states that go to the polls before Virginia does. Why, his supporters in those states might ask themselves, should I throw my vote away on someone who might not be competing in other critical states?
Also, Virginia is the country's 12th-largest state in population. It will be offering up a trove of delegates March 6, and now they are out of reach for Gingrich. He has been leading in the polls in Virginia, and his brand of conservatism is a natural fit for the state.
This failure to qualify for the ballot comes at a bad time for Gingrich as he faces headwinds in Iowa, where the caucuses start the nominating contest on Jan. 3, and it comes as he remains behind in the polls in New Hampshire. His strength appears to be in South Carolina, but in Virginia, there will be no Southern candidate on the ballot.
Both Mitt Romney and Rep. Ron Paul, whose organizations have been laboring in the signature-gathering vineyards for months, were able to get on the Virginia ballot.
Rival campaigns quickly seized on the setback as a sign of disorganization within the Gingrich campaign. Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney, called it "cringe-worthy."
"It's a gut-check moment for Republicans," Fehrnstrom said. "Winning campaigns have to be able to execute on the fundamentals. This is like watching a hitter in the World Series failing to lay down a bunt."
Still, it is hard to predict the practical effect of Gingrich's absence from the Virginia ballot. The state is one of 10 that vote on March 6, known as Super Tuesday. Eleven states will have voted by then, including big ones like Colorado, Florida and Michigan (and not counting Missouri, where delegates are not at stake).
If those earlier states have not winnowed the field, then Super Tuesday becomes all the more important. Because the Republicans will be picking most of their delegates proportionally this year, instead of winner-take-all, the candidates who are in the top tier now — Romney, Paul and Gingrich — are likely to be competing for each and every delegate in what is expected to be a protracted primary fight.
Gingrich does have a safety card on Super Tuesday: Georgia, which he represented in Congress, votes that day, and if all goes well for him, he should win most of its delegates. He can only hope that they make up for a shutout in Virginia.
But whether or not there is any practical effect, Gingrich immediately began suffering a psychological effect as pundits and people posting on Twitter questioned anew his ability to organize and his credibility, in light of his earlier declaration that he would make the ballot.