How Newt Lost Florida: It Wasn’t Just the Debates and the Moon Base

The new science of winning campaigns.
Feb. 1 2012 9:56 AM

How Newt Lost

It wasn’t just the bad debate performances and the moon base. His disorganized campaign got outflanked and outclassed.

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Volunteers make campaign calls on behalf of Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich at his Polk County headquarters. Gingrich's Flordia efforts were not as well-organized as Mitt Romney's.

Photo by Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

Last Thursday, a bus pulled up outside an Orlando office plaza and disgorged 30 Texas technologists reporting for duty at Newt Gingrich’s Central Florida headquarters. Their leader, a 32-year old online marketer named Michael Hendrix, had contacted Gingrich’s campaign before he left Dallas to tell them about his project. No one on the campaign ever responded to his message, but Hendrix headed to Florida with his entourage anyway.  When they arrived at the office, Hendrix introduced himself to Ron Janssen, a longtime Republican Party official working as Gingrich’s Orange County co-chair. Janssen was busy printing out walk lists—rosters of targeted voters and addresses— that could be given to the canvassers being dispatched to dense Republican precincts, and he didn’t have much time to hear about Hendrix’s work.  So Hendrix introduced himself to some of the volunteers and started telling them about it.

Sasha Issenberg Sasha Issenberg

Sasha Issenberg is the author of The Victory Lab about the new science of political campaigns.

Hendrix had begun his career in Miami, developing online strategies for luxury brands like Moët-Hennessy and Lamborghini before decamping his consulting business to Dallas in 2010. He was a Republican who had volunteered on various campaigns over the years, but was not radicalized until the debate over the Stop Online Piracy Act first raged in December, when Hendrix joined many in the digital-content world in opposing what they saw as onerous new regulations.  “I wanted to focus on getting candidates elected who would be knowledgeable about technology and have a vision,” he reflected the other day, in an ocean-blue Hollister sweater, jeans, high-tops and a brown tweed newsboy cap that made him look quite unlike any other campaign operative who had come to Florida to make a name for himself in Republican politics.

In late December, Hendrix started Red Digital Media with the goal of developing software that could help Republican candidates. He had been handed enough clipboards with paper walk sheets to think that canvassing was ready for a digital upgrade.  Just before Christmas, Hendrix turned to Taylor Cavanah, a software programmer who specialized in location-sensitive mobile apps, and proposed that his firm’s next project be an app designed for door-knocking canvassers and ready for their use in one of the early primaries. Cavanah bought a Florida voter file for $5from state authorities and started pruning the data so it included only Republicans who had voted in three out of the past five elections. Hendrix enlisted some likeminded friends and encouraged them to make travel arrangements to Orlando for the week before the primary. They were going to put their new technology to work for Newt Gingrich, whether he liked it or not.

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“Newt is the one candidate who, from a tech perspective, gets it,” Hendrix says. “One of the reasons we had so many techies—they care about things like the moon base.  Everyone close to my age probably wanted to be an astronaut at some point, so that’s very appealing to them.”

Hendrix told this story to a handful of volunteers at the office making phone calls and waiting for Janssen to hand them their walk sheets and clipboards. Some were intrigued by his claim that they could just download the app—now called Street Teams—for free onto their Android phones and begin knocking on doors. In the end, around a half-dozen Gingrich volunteers left their posts and followed Hendrix’s group onto the streets of Orlando. 

It was the first of nine cities that Hendrix and his self-described “elite task force” would visit as part of their effort to rouse voters for Newt and wining attention for an app they hope to market to Republican candidates nationally this year. They convinced local Gingrich volunteers to download the app and aimed to knock on 20,000 Florida doors. At each home, a canvasser would ask the resident who she supported and what issue mattered most to her. The canvasser would then enter the responses into the app. Such information, known as an ID, is the basic currency of campaign fieldwork and should have been valuable material for Gingrich’s tacticians across Florida—had they been able to access it. But the campaign had been using its own system to catalog interactions with Florida voters for weeks, and the two approaches could never be synchronized. The campaign had edited its voter file with a different profile of the likely Republican voters and had delivered tens of thousands of automated survey calls to separate supporters from the undecided. The campaign also had a different script and survey questions for its callers and canvassers than the one Hendrix had drafted for his app. 

They might not have realized it at the time, but the volunteers who used Hendrix’s app were gathering information that the campaign could never use. The emergence of a parallel, and incompatible, voter-contact campaign was perhaps the most startling example of Gingrich’s inability to leverage the grass-roots enthusiasm for his candidacy that blossomed in December and came into full flower with his victory in South Carolina. Primaries pose a distinct challenge to the campaign organizer, since the most durable political institution—the party, usually a repository of data on voters and guilds of volunteer workers—refuses to play favorites and goes dormant, forcing candidates to build their own substitute infrastructure. “The party’s apparatus is not available generally,” says Janssen, an elected committee member of the Republican Party of Florida. “The candidates have to have their own systems and that sort of thing.”

Romney has solved that problem largely through an ambitious and costly micro-targeting regime that requires little of the traditional electioneering footprint.  In Florida that manifested itself most clearly in an aggressive effort, using publicly available data, to pursue voters who had requested absentee ballots and encouraging others to take advantage of their opportunity to vote early. In so doing, Romney banked a healthy share of his nearly 800,000 votes before primary day—many of them even before the race was briefly upended by Gingrich’s South Carolina victory. Gingrich arrived in Florida already scrambling to catch up.

As the two candidates enter a new phase of the primary season that could stretch well into the spring, their field and voter-contact programs appear to have taken on the character of the campaign’s principals. Mitt’s is centralized, disciplined, overplanned, and astute at calculating risk to several decimal places. Newt’s is schizophrenic, propelled by desultory enthusiasms to chase unrealizable ambitions, and—as in the case of the two irreconcilable campaigns working the Orlando streets—containing multitudes.

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