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.”
Chuck Laudner, a former director of the Iowa Republican party, agrees. “Being a caucus rather than a primary, winning Iowa is usually dependent on a superior ground game,” he says. Yet with Gingrich leading state and national polls, even he knows that Romney’s quiet play for Iowa, and Rep. Ron Paul’s strong base, may not be able to eclipse the Gingrich surge.
“Given the unusual nature of the race and the huge numbers of undecided voters, Gingrich could perform well despite his reluctance to build a network,” Laudner says.
For the moment, Gingrich’s fresh bushel of campaign cash is being funneled into television ads, and newly opened offices are busy but sparse. A new 60-second spot, for instance, recently went up in Iowa, its message reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” commercial from the 1984 presidential campaign. And in Urbandale, near Des Moines, the campaign opened its state headquarters earlier this month, filling it with cellphones, posters, and sign-up sheets.
Just as important says Adam Waldeck, Gingrich’s South Carolina strategist, is what the campaign is doing to connect with tea-party leaders in early states. After the campaign nearly imploded in July, Waldeck notes, it was tea-party members, more than others, who stuck with Gingrich. And now, as he rises, they are taking the reins, with Gingrich’s national team enabling backers such as Joe Dugan, a Myrtle Beach activist, to direct outreach projects.
Engaging with tea-party members and attending their events helps the campaign save money, one Gingrich adviser says, letting Gingrich keep his funds on the air. Gingrich-organized events are rare, the adviser points out, since the candidate enjoys using state-GOP platforms, tea parties, and constant media appearances to stay in the headlines. Controlling events is not a priority.
As two sources close to the campaign explain, Gingrich may have an established record in Washington, but in the last decade, he is better known to many voters as a tea-party supporter and Republican grandee, one with close ties to both elected officials and conservative causes. Emphasizing those post-House connections is increasingly important as Gingrich attempts to solidify his position in the polls not only as the frontrunner, but as the clear alternative to Romney.
“Before I came down to South Carolina, I was the speaker’s liaison to tea-party groups and 9-12 movement leaders,” Waldeck says. “We built some really great relationships over the years. That’s part of the reason why he wanted me to come down here; he knew we could immediately connect with activists and they’ve become county chairs and campaign staffers.”
In Iowa, Team Gingrich is employing a similar strategy. State representative Linda Upmeyer, Gingrich’s Hawkeye State director and the majority leader in the state house, acknowledges that “in a perfect world, organization and energy would be at the same level. But the beauty of our momentum is that we can quickly build our organization with our momentum.” Gingrich’s ability to impress during debates, she says, has accomplished more than most phone banks.
“I don’t even think most people listen to those phone calls anymore,” says former Iowa congressman Greg Ganske, Gingrich’s state finance director. “That kind of thing does not make much of a difference. People are sick of sitting down to dinner and having the phone ring six times.” In the final days, what matters most for Gingrich, he says, is simply to keep the energy during television appearances, speeches, and debates, knowing that it will be heard by voters, “so if it’s 35 degrees below zero in January, that enthusiasm will bring people out, no matter what.”
Of course, behind the scenes, Gingrich’s aides are not relying entirely on a national message and tea-party fervor to carry the campaign. This week, they are interviewing former Herman Cain staffers in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida, hoping to bring many of them on board. New hires, advisers say, will be announced in coming days.
Another internal initiative is making sure the logistics for getting on primary ballots are covered. Gingrich’s sudden rise to the top of the field, aides say, has not been a perfect journey. On Wednesday, the campaign’s top staffers were racing to make sure Gingrich had filed to be on the Ohio primary ballot, cutting it close to the deadline. This last-minute filing comes after the campaign missed the filing deadline in Missouri. Aides, for their part, say the latter was calculated: Since the Missouri GOP primary does not award delegates, it was not worth pursuing.
“The challenge of ballot access is real, and requires a full-time focus,” says Phil Musser, a former senior adviser to Tim Pawlenty’s presidential campaign. “It is time-consuming and often very laborious, but with the possibility of a protracted primary fight, it is vital. Ron Paul has been very focused on this in a way Gingrich has not, and he clearly has to play catch up.”
And catch up he can, predicts Sal Russo, the chief strategist for the Tea Party Express. “Every election cycle brings new wrinkles. The old adages in Iowa and New Hampshire, where no one considered you until they met you for a fourth time, have changed,” he says. “Newt is pushing the envelope by using the debates and social media more than the traditional elements. But you don’t see him ignoring those elements, either. He is taking a mixed approach.”
Come January, it could easily pay off, Schmidt says, with Gingrich galloping to victory after victory thanks mostly to his message and momentum. “He’s like a maestro playing a Stradivarius in recital, saying exactly what the base wants to hear.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.