Newt Gingrich has taken the Republican primary campaign by storm, but with weeks until Iowans caucus, his biggest challenge, according to GOP insiders, is organization. The former speaker, operatives say, may be leading in the polls, but unless he aggressively escalates his campaign, Mitt Romney may have an edge on the ground, where Gingrich is scrambling to expand his lean machine.
“Newt’s situation is like having the fastest car and best driver in a NASCAR race, but no crew and not enough gas to finish the race,” says Ed Rollins, who has managed campaigns for Ronald Reagan, Mike Huckabee, and Michele Bachmann. “He has to get a crew and raise money to finish the race. . . . It’s a long season and one race doesn’t win you the championship.”
Gingrich advisers, however, tell National Review Online
that supporters should not worry, or accept the Beltway’s conventional wisdom about field operations. In early primary states, they say, the campaign is hiring staff and coordinating volunteers. As the clock ticks, mirroring Romney’s efforts is not their aim. Instead, they are looking to build a flexible infrastructure for their candidate, focusing on tea-party coalitions, town halls, and social networking.
“Keep it simple, keep it loose, let Newt be Newt,” is how one Gingrich confidant puts it, describing the campaign’s internal thinking. Indeed, Gingrich’s return to the top of the polls, his aides say, is related in part to his ability to run a positive, solutions-oriented campaign, with a core group of dedicated organizers hustling behind the scenes, not a coterie of paid politicos.
As Republicans watch Gingrich maneuver at the eleventh hour, there are contrasting views on whether he will be able to match Romney’s ground game — and whether it matters. Steve Schmidt, who managed Sen. John McCain’s campaign in 2008, says that Washington pundits who raise questions about Gingrich’s organizing strength miss the big picture.
“John McCain proved that you can come back in a Republican primary and win the nomination without a lot of money,” Schmidt says. “I think Gingrich is now testing the premise, seeing if you can do it with even less money. Organization is totally overstated in the social-media age. The reality is, politics has changed. . . . There is a quadrennial industry in a number of these early states that monetizes the illusion that what’s determinative is a robust organization.”
That may be, says Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, but Gingrich cannot eschew traditional organizing and expect success. “Being the clear frontrunner, which Gingrich now is, means the nasty nitty-gritty of organization must be tackled, especially in Iowa,” Sabato says. “In a small universe that produces a tiny turnout of perhaps 110,000 caucus participants, you can add or subtract several percentage points from your total, at a minimum, depending on whether you have a good or poor organization.”