Newt’s Not Here, Man
Cain and Gingrich are making the wrong campaign moves, and winning. Why?
Photographs by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.
On Nov. 5, with just five non-holiday Saturdays left till the Iowa caucuses, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain will be in Texas. Let the other candidates flip pancakes and stockpile antifreeze in Iowa. Gingrich and Cain will be in Houston for a “modified Lincoln-Douglas debate” about entitlement spending. The room seats only 1,000, and tickets start $200, with the proceeds going to the Texas Tea Party Patriots PAC.
Is this a weird scheduling decision? No doubt. That’s not to say it will hurt Cain or Gingrich. Check the polls: Gingrich has recovered some of his old intra-Republican popularity. Cain is now the front-runner in Iowa and in a bunch of later primary states where voters know the candidates mostly through debates and Fox News hits—forums where these two shine. Both candidates are doing even better than they were before they converted their campaigns into full-service book tours.
Just look at their schedules. On Aug. 13, Herman Cain lost the Ames straw poll handily, coming in fifth place. He left Iowa with polls showing him in low single digits. On Aug. 18, he officially launched his 9-9-9 tax plan. On Sept. 24, Cain won the Florida Republican Party’s quadrennial straw poll. On Oct. 4, he released his memoir and started his book tour. Over the next two weeks, four Iowa polls were released, and Cain led in all four. But Cain himself wasn’t in Iowa. His first post-straw-poll visit to the state came on Sunday. The entire Cain surge happened while he was elsewhere, with only four Iowa staffers and a sloppy local organization. And even before the surge, he’d spent less time in the state than Rick Santorum or Michele Bachmann.
It’s not supposed to work like this. Daron Shaw, a University of Texas political scientist, has spent more than a decade analyzing the effects of campaign appearances on voters and election results. In his research, most recently in The Race to 270, Shaw has determined that in-person campaign stops do more for candidates than anything else. In 2006, after Rick Perry hired Shaw to craft his re-election campaign, Shaw noticed that campaign stops in places like Lubbock wound up giving the candidate oodles of free, uncritical media, and permanent poll bounces of up to 4 points.
“You can sit in a studio and do 12 interviews on the nightly news in six markets in the time it takes you to go out to Lubbock,” Perry svengali Dave Carney told the journalist Sasha Issenberg. “The actual visits make a bigger, more lasting impact than just being on the news.”
By every normal metric, Cain and Gingrich should be bottoming out. When Gingrich’s first campaign team bolted, knives red and heavy in their hands, they explained that the candidate wasn’t doing what it would take to win. Gingrich wanted to keep doing events for his new book and his self-parodying educational films. They thought he was wasting time. He hired a new staff and kept schlepping the “cultural documents.” So far in October, according to Politico’s candidate schedule, and not counting all-candidate debates, Gingrich has held nine public events of which five were promotions for a book or movie. And what was Gingrich’s old team doing? Dave Carney is working for none other than Rick Perry, who campaigned the old-fashioned way, partially disowned his book, and fell to earth faster than Icarus cradling a space heater.
“I've been doing this for a long time,” says Rich Galen, a Republican strategist who worked for Gingrich in the 1990s. “People like me think that if you don't hire us, you're not serious. They didn’t hire us, but Cain and Gingrich know what they’re good at.” The centrist Republican strategist Mark McKinnon agrees with that. “It’s just exposing the fact that old-school organizing just isn't as relevant or important as it used to be in today's media world.”
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.