As they stumble dazed into Florida, the Romney forces had better think hard about what happened in South Carolina. They will want to dismiss Saturday’s results as a fluke. But in the Palmetto State, Newt Gingrich put into harness a totally new strategy of presidential campaigning – some of it visible, some below the surface.
The old strategy started with Richard Nixon’s 1968 run. It emphasized early momentum gained in New Hampshire, highly professional television advertising, limited availability of the candidate to the media, well polled positions articulated in carefully crafted speeches. Later a strong and expensively assembled grassroots organization became part of the mix, as did staging events around single themes, with soundbites and visuals to define the TV and newspaper story.
The idea was to control the message in the television age. As cable came in and its news channels began covering ordinary campaign speeches live and airing longer clips in their evening summary programs, pithy soundbites became less critical, but otherwise, not much changed.
This modern style was almost prohibitively expensive. Television ads cost a fortune to produce and air. The so-called ground game required a vast army of paid organizers. Starting in the early 90s, every nuance of language was subject to extensive polling, getting into far more detail than had ever been tried before. That, too, upped the bill. And as a result essential to the style was a highly disciplined fundraising operation built around major events that brought together thousands of four and five-figure donors.
This year, Mitt Romney has followed this television-age playbook to the last detail. His campaign is vast in its professionally organized reach; careful and competent though unimaginative in its messaging; controlled in every detail of how the candidate is presented; extensive and highly productive in its fundraising; and, at least, in South Carolina, ineffective.
Newt Gingrich’s surge was not because of bombast in debates, as some have been saying. In South Carolina, Gingrich showed he understood that technology and tastes have transformed the tempo and tolerances of presidential races. Let’s count the ways this year has been different and how Gingrich has molded his campaign to the new reality:
TV advertising: Yes, it remains important. No one is going to yank his ads from the air. But Romney’s dominance in this arena is, obviously, no longer sufficient. The debates have seen to that — but also talk radio and television interviews, particularly, perhaps, on Fox News.
Much as candidates have since Nixon, Romney has tried to keep himself in controlled message environments. His testy interview with Fox’s Bret Baier showed how hard he finds spontaneous give and take. In contrast, of course, Gingrich was a commentator on Fox before announcing for the presidency and a frequent guest on talk radio. His facility in the South Carolina debates reflected, in part, how much practice he has had in these unscripted, politely adversarial formats. If he turned around even the most blatantly gotcha questions with effortless aplomb, it is because he has done it so many times in so many other formats, particularly talk radio. He has experience that Romney can’t match.
Messaging: Yes, Gingrich uses pollsters. But thanks to his exposure to so many spontaneous formats, he has developed a personal feel for what moves the electorate, a feel that polling and focus groups simply cannot give. In a Saturday evening posting on National Review Online’s The Corner, Hugh Hewitt got at this difference when he wrote: “Newt’s greatest contribution to the race has been to demonstrate that the style of political argument that Chris Christie and Paul Ryan <http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/288824/ball-floridas-court-now-hugh-hewitt> debuted in the last couple of years actually is not a luxury but a necessity to win hearts and minds in the GOP.”
Fund Raising: Super Pacs have upped the ability of candidates, through independent allies, to tap truly huge dollar donors. Gingrich famously tapped one of these sources just before the New Hampshire balloting. But his use of the Internet has transformed small-dollar donations into at least as big a story in his campaign. The Dean ’04 and Obama ’08 efforts were the first to drink from this spring. But Gingrich is the first Republican to tap deeply into it, too. Web donations allowed him to continue his campaign after the traditional sources of money ran dry. His Florida money bomb could match Romney’s more familiar funding tactics in the current phase of the contest.
Organization: This is one Gingrich advantage that has totally missed commentators. The web makes it possible for a strong message candidate to build an on-the-ground apparatus cheaply and quickly. Where Romney had to spend heavily over years to put his organization in place, Gingrich has the tools to do it quickly and on the cheap.
In other words, Newt Gingrich has emerged as a highly effective campaign innovator. Here is one sure way for Romney to lose this election. Ignore that.