Driving between small towns in South Carolina earlier this month, with no mobile phone coverage, I enjoyed a brief respite from never-ending national media and the ongoing evolution of campaign narratives. It reminded me of the mid 1970s when my father, Newt Gingrich, today a Republican presidential candidate, first ran for Congress in rural Georgia. His district was south Atlanta, down to Griffin and west to the Alabama border. We would drive in the car for hours, for days, for weeks—well for years—before he won his first race in 1978.
Stopping at every small gas station, restaurant, you name it, to shake the hands of the one or two people that were there. My father lost twice, but both times got up the next day, and as a family we went to shake hands with factory workers, thanking them and asking for their help next time.
Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum’s surprise performance in Iowa—basically tying with Mitt Romney—was due to his focus on “retail politicking” in the past year. He spent over 100 days in Iowa and held over 380 town hall meetings. Romney and Paul, who both ran and lost in the 2008 primaries, can attribute their performances by their continuous focus on maintaining organization at a local level.
There are several mechanical parts to campaigns. The key parts are: policy (stances on specific topical areas), organization (both national and boots on the ground), fundraising, communication strategy, including earned media (free coverage of candidate/ campaign), and paid media (advertisements, mail etc); political (ground organization, endorsements) and candidate performance (debates, on the ground and in media).
Candidate performance is the most critical of all the areas. You can have the right policies, great organization, clear communications from the campaign, fabulous fundraising, and a powerful political operation, but if the candidate personally underperforms it’s hard to bounce back.
Individual factors in the race often run in cross currents to each other: great communication, not enough money; money, but no clear compelling communication; great organization, but poor candidate performance; in any number of combinations. The one thing that the process does is to stretch and test all the candidates, their organizations, families and supporters. The hope is that the process, like turning iron into steel, will eventually burn out the…