One wonders what Hunter S Thompson, the gonzo journalist who thought the best way to confront the American campaign trail was with the help of powerful hallucinogenic narcotics, would have made of the fight for the GOP nomination. From the emergence of a front-running pizza magnate to the rehabilitation of Newt Gingrich, from the 'Santorum Surge' to the 'Santorum Sweep', the contest has often felt more like a trip than a race. For the sober-minded, however, there are a few lessons to draw from early contests...

1. Super PACs trump the Tea Party

This was the year when the insurgent Tea Party movement was supposed to assert itself, even to the extent of exercising a veto over the GOP presidential nomination. Instead, it is the Super PACs, so mercilessly parodied by the comedian Stephen Colbert (see above), that have had the super-sized effect. Thinly-disguised proxies for the candidates, they have aired just as many advertisements and spent just as much money.

Not only have they prolonged the race — had it not been for a $10 million cash injection from the casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, Gingrich would have struggled to carry on past New Hampshire — they have given it a particularly nasty edge, partly because Super PACs air allegations that the candidates themselves can then plausibly deny.

This negative barrage works. Gingrich's Super PAC-fueled comeback in South Carolina demonstrated the power of negative campaigning, as did Romney's counterattack in Florida. This year, over 90% of ads runs by candidates and their proxies have been wholly negative.

Another surprise is that the Occupy Movement has probably had a bigger impact in framing the race for the GOP than the Tea Party movement. 'Vulture capitalism'; the assault on Bain; Romney's tax return. Many of the Republican attacks lines have come straight from '99% against the 1%' chants of Zuccotti Park. 

2. Debates make a comeback

Historically speaking, the impact of debates, especially in general elections, has been exaggerated. Self-inflicted wounds, like Nixon's flop-sweat and Gerald Ford's incoherence over the Soviet Union's sphere of influence, have been much more common than 'knock-out punches'.

This year's 25 GOP debates, however, have repeatedly had a game-changing impact. They killed off Rick Perry, helped propel Herman Cain, gave Gingrich two separate surges, and enabled Romney to mount his fight-back in Florida. In an age of online audience participation, these interactive debates have given the race a reality show, voted-off-the-island feel. A turning point for Romney came in Florida, when he employed a new debate coach.

Ed. Note: We'll have three more of Nick Bryant's early lessons in a follow-up post later today.