Is political organization overrated?

at 10:49 AM ET, 12/12/2011

The rapid rise of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in Iowa (as well as everywhere else) raises a question that has long been on our minds: Is political organization overrated?


Republican presidential candidate former House Speaker Newt Gingrich talks to supporters Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2011, during a campaign stop in Council Bluffs, Iowa. (AP Photo/Dave Weaver)

Gingrich has a small staff in the Hawkeye State and yet is widely regarded as the frontrunner with the caucuses just three weeks away.

Looking for answers about whether organization still matters, we talked to a number of high level Republican strategists about it. Their answer? It matters but not as much as most people think.

We dedicated our entire Monday newspaper column to the subject. We write:

Every time you turn on cable news or read a blog, you can’t help but hear talk about how important it is for a presidential candidate to have a large and well-funded political organization to win the all-important Iowa caucuses.
And yet, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, the Iowa front-runner with just 22 days left before the caucuses, has — at best — a spartan political organization in the state. And four years ago, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee beat out his far more professionally organized rivals to claim victory in the Hawkeye State.
“Excitement and intensity are more valuable for a campaign and a strong message and candidate are more likely to get voters out on a cold winter’s night than a strong organization,” said Terry Nelson, a longtime Republican operative and Iowa native. “Sometimes people forget that organization is just mechanics.”
With the growth of online organizing, the old measures of how effective an operation is or the time it takes to build one could be faulty.
“It’s cheaper, easier and faster to organize and connect voters than ever before, and you need less infrastructure to do it,” said Phil Musser, a onetime senior adviser to the presidential campaign of former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty.
Huckabee’s win four years ago in Iowa is indicative of how rapidly the definition of an effective organization is changing. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney spent hundreds of hours and more than $10 million in the state, building one of the best traditional Iowa organizations in recent memory.
And yet, it was Huckabee who soared to victory — boosted by the momentum surrounding his campaign among Iowa’s social conservatives and a message (“I’m not a traditional politician”) that resonated. To call Huckabee’s organization a patchwork — it consisted primarily of evangelical churchgoers and home-schooling advocates — would be kind.
“Too often, people will confuse organization with the number of paid staff and consultants a campaign has,” said Tim Albrecht, the communications director for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and a member of Romney’s 2008 campaign in the state.
Albrecht added that the “organic” organization Huckabee built in the last presidential campaign appears to be the model for Gingrich this time around.
While Gingrich’s organization “does not have the sheer numbers or passion of the voters Huckabee had, they are veteran caucus-goers who won’t need hand-holding or training when it comes to running their caucus,” he said.
(Gingrich has a few high-profile endorsers in Iowa, including state Rep. Linda Upmeyer and former congressman Greg Ganske, but until recently he didn’t have the money to finance a top-tier organization.)
Although organization — at least as it is traditionally been defined — may be overrated, it still matters, particularly when the margin of victory or defeat is slim.
Rep. Ron Paul is running well behind Gingrich in the slew of recent Iowa polls, but longtime Hawkeye State observers insist that the Texan’s emphasis on organization-building means he will perform more strongly on Jan. 3 than he does in such pre-caucus surveys.
Paul “is running the most traditional of grass-roots-oriented Iowa caucus campaigns, and it is paying big dividends,” said one senior Iowa operative who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly assess the field. “He is drawing enormous crowds and presumably signing up new supporters and caucus-goers through a well-organized effort.”
The challenge for Gingrich in the final three weeks of the Iowa campaign is to try to marry the energy and momentum he has with some semblance of the organization that Huckabee built (or, more accurately, had built for him) in 2008.
“Usually when momentum catches up to a lack of organization, the campaign collapses,” said Ed Rollins, who managed the presidential campaign of Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) for a while this year. “Newt may get far enough along with his abilities to win early and build his organization in February and beyond.”

 
Read what others are saying