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.

* * *

This fall, as his campaign began to blink back to life after its near-death summer, Gingrich claimed he was incubating a “substance-based, volunteer-centered, Internet-based system” that would look nothing like the traditional campaign his since-departed consultants had encouraged him to run in the spring. “This,” Gingrich told the authors of a Politico ebook in mid-November, “is like watching Walton or Kroc develop Walmart and McDonald’s.”

Gingrich’s Florida campaign emerged from a less vaunted corporate precedent.  It was literally an outgrowth of the sprawling business empire known as Newt Inc.  He had in 2005 opened a Miami office of Gingrich Communications, which promoted his appearances and films and four years later launched a Spanish-language web site called The Americano. When he became a presidential candidate, the two-person Miami staff of Gingrich Communications became his campaign in the state. Not until mid-December did Gingrich hire a real political staff, led by former Marco Rubio campaign manager José Mallea, but even then it existed in the shadow of Newt Inc. Orlando political consultant Angel de la Portilla, hired to direct Gingrich’s Hispanic outreach efforts in Central Florida, was instructed to seek daily guidance from an Americano contributor, Alberto Acereda, whose day job is as an Arizona State University literature professor with self-described expertise in “Latin American and Spanish poetry and particularly on the fin-de-siécle, modernismo and modernity within Hispanic literary and cultural studies.”

Romney’s consultant-driven campaign was in a less theoretically minded phase. It had already developed micro-targeting scores that predicted the likelihood that every Republican in the state would support Romney, a substitute for the reams of individual data that state parties would have compiled from their past interactions with voters.  The micro-targeting models offered early confirmation to Romney’s advisers that the candidate was appealing to an entirely different segment of the electorate than he had in 2008, when the former Massachusetts governor positioned himself to the right of John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. But the micro-targeting scores also helped Romney’s campaign develop tactics for managing early and absentee votes, which together ended up providing one-third of the total cast in the state. When ballots were sent out beginning Dec. 28, Romney’s campaign was able to chase those sent to likely supporters or those his system had classified as pesuadable.

By the time Gingrich opened his Central Florida office in Orlando on Jan. 13, Romney had been diligently accumulating votes for weeks.  Gingrich’s campaign had no micro-targeting program, relying on its automated survey calls to identify Republican voters in the state and pinpoint their first and second choice candidates in the race. Those who had marked themselves undecided were put in a queue to receive a live call from a volunteer.  Their scripts had a simple message for voters who affirmed they were still undecided: Watch the debates. Callers recited times and channels—“It’s on CNN tomorrow night at 8”—as though they were reciting broadcast promos for the cable networks. 

But after the two Florida debates were completed last week, callers were invited to improvise their efforts at persuasion. As defense, they were given thick, stapled research packets with sections like “ethics problems.” When they went on offense, several of the Orlando volunteers would boast first about how “well-educated” Newt was. That was the preferred tack of Al Weschler, a retired New Jerseyan who made about 150 phone calls daily and became known among his fellow volunteers for his confidence in his own ability to feistily argue Gingrich’s case to nonbelievers, even though it occasionally deviated from the campaign’s preferred message.

Much like Romney’s campaign, Gingrich’s staff was collecting the daily rosters that county authorities released listing those who had voted early or requested absentee ballots. But Gingrich’s campaign systems were slow to reflect the updates, meaning that volunteers often spent their time talking to the wrong people. “I just spent 20 minutes on the phone with somebody who tells me how much she loves Newt,” says Daniel Hall, a junior at Ole Miss who skipped class and drove 11 hours from Oxford to make calls for Gingrich in the days before the primary. “She’s already voted.”

Gingrich justified his campaign’s amateurism by suggesting he represented “people power” in a contest with “money power.” When on the Saturday before the election he showed up to a “Hispanic town hall” at an Orlando church and saw barely 60 people before him—the campaign had outsourced its crowd-building work to a network of Puerto Rican pastors —he cut the event short and turned it into a perfunctory meet-and-greet.  “I want to chat with each of you personally and ask you to go out on Facebook, on Twitter, on email, and even by telephone and talking to people face-to-face—the old-fashioned way,” Gingrich said. “You’re our personal ambassadors to go out and get votes.”

Indeed, if Gingrich’s supporters succeeded at anything, it was channeling the candidate’s personality. The Orlando office was filled with grandiose plans that seemed to disregard the laws of political physics. “What we have found is a lot of the Hispanic Democrats are not reached out to enough—and deep down they have a lot of conservative ideology,” said Crissy Más, one of the two Gingrich Communications employees reassigned to the campaign staff.  But Gingrich had effectively no election operation in the state before Jan.3, when the registration deadline passed—which meant that any ambition to enlist sympathetic Democrats fell well below an inhabited moon colony on a ranking of possible scenarios. Janssen talked excitedly about a friend in an Orlando firefighters’ local who was trying to rally union members for Newt, but he fell momentarily quite when asked how many of them were registered Republicans. “You bring up a good point,” Janssen said, projecting puzzlement.  “Now that I think about it, a lot of them probably can’t vote for him.”

The arrival of the bus full of Texans calling themselves an elite strike force in the days before the primary cheered the campaign office. It was a classic Newtian development—bold, unconventional, tech-driven—and it seemed to reaffirm that Gingrich really was inspiring grass-roots enthusiasm nationwide. Over lunch on election day, Hendrix reviewed the project’s numbers.  His team had reached 48,000 voters, more than twice their initial target. But the information they collected went into the app and effectively died there, never merging with the campaign’s own databases. Gingrich’s campaign had no ability to follow up with identified voters, whether to reach the undecided with persuasive appeals or to target declared supporters with reminders to turn out. “We didn’t have a plan to turn out voters. We had a plan to ID them,” Hendrix said over lunch on election day. “It wasn’t because we didn’t have enough time. It’s because we weren’t working with a campaign.”

Tuesday night, trailing Romney by 15 points, Gingrich no longer invoked corporate visionaries like Kroc or Walton when arguing that his campaign would look different than Romney’s.  “We’re putting together a people’s campaign,” Gingrich said to a ballroom at an Orlando resort, an unlikely venue for the language of César Chavez. “Not a Republican campaign, not an establishment campaign, not a Wall Street-funded campaign but a people’s campaign.” At some point, Gingrich may be forced to realize that there are only so many people you can put in charge of a campaign at one time.

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