As longtime readers know, my goal in writing these posts is to try to use political science, (loosely defined – often it’s more my political intuition) to make sense of political events as they happen. That means that rather than foist my political viewpoint on you in the guise of independent analysis, I try as much as possible to use past events as a means of understanding current issues and to try to predict future outcomes. The weakness of this approach, however, is that the effort to ground the analysis in a reading of history can blind one to unexpected developments. In this vein, consider Newt Gingrich’s unexpected (to most pundits) climb to the top of the Republican leaderboard. Despite the recent barrage of negative media coverage, the latest national polls continue to show him edging slightly ahead of Mitt Romney, and Tuesday’s national security debate, if the pundits are to be believed, probably didn’t hurt his standing, although we can’t as yet be certain whether his more moderate approach to immigration will cost him Tea Party support.
Moreover, he has climbed to the top of the polls in Iowa, largely due to Tea Party support, and has moved into second place in New Hampshire, albeit a distant second based on most polls to Mitt Romney. Here are the current Iowa standings, based on the Realpolitics composite poll tracker (Gingrich is green, Cain red and Romney purple).
Here’s what is interesting about Gingrich’s unexpected success: he is doing it without much in the way of boots on the ground. Rather than engage in the type of meet-and-great retail politics that the experts tell us is a prerequisite for doing well in Iowa and New Hampshire, Gingrich so far has engaged in an unconventional campaign “of ideas” based on using social media and public debates to get his message out. According to the Des Moines candidate tracker , Gingrich has obtained front-runner status in the Iowa polls despite his campaign holding far fewer events – 86 so far – and Newt making fewer appearances (48) than either Rick Santorum (226 events, 76 appearances) or Michelle Bachmann (114, 58), both of whom languish near the bottom of the Iowa polling pack so far (Santorum is brown and Bachmann black in the chart above). Similarly, Mitt Romney is a close third in the Iowa polls, although he has so far had very little presence in the state – in fact, he has visited the state even less frequently (18 and eight) than Newt, although that may change in the next few weeks. So far, at least, it appears that polling in Iowa is not simply a function of the relative scope of the candidates’ ground games.
It is too early, of course, to draw firm conclusions. But in pursuing his unconventional strategy, Newt appears to be trying to bypass the traditional nomination gatekeepers, particularly the party politicos and media opinion leaders who wrote the Newtster off after his campaign staff largely deserted him last summer. Indeed, they now appear flummoxed by Newt’s rise from the political ashes, and his apparent staying power despite recent revelations regarding his financial ties as a lobbyist to the government-backed mortgage firms Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Newt’s belated effort to back away from his initial, er, “fib” that he was hired as a “historian” seems not to have hurt him at all.
Gingrich’s rise to front-runner status raises an interesting question: is his campaign strategy based on social media, debates and direct communications the way of the future? Conventional wisdom says the best way to get voters to the polls is by having the campaign infrastructure in place to wage a door-to-door campaign. Whether by choice, or by necessity, Newt seems intent on defying this wisdom. If Newt is right, he will retrace the footsteps of previous innovators, like Jimmy Carter, who in 1976 was the only candidate to grasp the importance of doing well in the early events in Iowa and New Hampshire. He did partly out of necessity, since he lacked the resources to go head-to-head with the better known candidate in the larger primary states. Similarly, Barack Obama invested heavily in smaller caucus states in 2008 because he recognized he could not beat Hillary Clinton in the larger primary states. In politics, as in life, necessity is often the mother of invention.
It is too early to evaluate whether Newt’s unconventional approach will become the model for future campaigns, or instead will fail to translate polling support into actual votes and delegates. Keep in mind that other “innovative strategies” (remember Giuliani’s decision to skip Iowa and New Hampshire in 2008?) didn’t turn out so well. If Newt does win the nomination, however, it will be another illustration that political scientists are usually right – except when they aren’t.
Note: my colleague Bert Johnson and I are posting on the web short (8-10 minutes) discussions of the current campaign. If you are interested in hearing our unscripted (and therefore more entertaining) thoughts, our latest is at the Middlebury website here.
In the meantime, have a great Thanksgiving!