The fall of the house of Newt
The presidential campaign of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was rocked late Thursday by the resignation of more than a dozen senior staffers and key operatives in states like South Carolina and Iowa.
But how did things get so bad, so quickly? (Gingrich announced his presidential committee on May 11 — just 29 days before the mass staff departures.)
In interviews with a number of people who were involved in the effort, it’s clear that Gingrich and his campaign team disagreed strongly about the basic mechanics — from fundraising to messaging to targeting of voters — of his presidential bid, problems that exploded into public view late Thursday afternoon.
Gingrich, himself, acknowledged as much in an interview with ABC News early on Friday. “There is a fundamental strategic difference between the traditional consulting community and the kind of campaign I want to run,” he said. “Now we’ll find out over the next year who’s right.”
At the start of Gingrich’s presidential bid, there was widespread agreement between the candidate and his campaign that a non-traditional effort was called for.
The game plan focused on a combination of “new and different” approaches through social media and the Internet to interact with voters and a robust ground game in the early-voting states.
But, as the campaign wore on — a term used advisedly given that Gingrich has only been running for a month — it became clear that his definition of new and different was at odds with how his top aides framed it.
One example: Gingrich became convinced that one of the keys to his winning in Iowa was in targeting the Chinese community living in the state. Apparently, he had been told by a Chinese man at a campaign event that as many as 10,000 Chinese Americans lives in the state, one source explained.
Gingrich also wanted to focus heavily on what are widely regarded as second or third tier issues — replacing the Environmental Protection Agency, for example — that his strategists thought would ring hollow to an electorate deeply concerned about the economic welfare of the country.
The other major problem that immediately became apparent was fundraising. Gingrich had been raising millions of dollars into his American Solutions group and it was assumed that he still maintained major ties to the Republican donor community nationwide from his time as Speaker.
Instead cash collection turned out to be a huge issue. Decisions on expenditures were based on fundraising expectations that were never met.
Gingrich, in fact, had no real finance network. The campaign had to be funded under federal campaign finance rules that are far more strict than those governing American Solutions, which can accept unlimited contributions from individual donors.
He had not spent the past year or two putting a finance team in place as had his rivals like former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty.
The campaign was, therefore, forced to build a fundraising network from scratch. There was no list of the top 50 people they could count on to bundle or lead the fundraising effort. Further complicating matters was the fact that, according to several sources, Gingrich didn’t want to dial for dollars — a sine qua non of a presidential bid.
As Gingrich’s campaign began to flail, donors started to leave in droves; fundraisers long on the schedule were being canceled left and right.
The lack of a fundraising base badly hamstrung the campaign’s strategic calculations. Here’s the best example. Goal number one was to do well in the Iowa straw poll in Ames in August. But the Gingrich team didn’t have the $25,000 needed to enter the straw poll or the $30,000 needed to buy the list of previous Iowa caucus attendees.
Spending was also high, often exceeding the cash the campaign was bringing in. One major expenditure was on chartered planes, which a source suggested ran to as much as $500,000; Gingrich preferred to travel on private planes so that he could make it home at night rather than depend on the often-erratic commercial flight schedule. A Gingrich campaign spokesperson declined to comment on the expenditures.
And then there was the debate about Gingrich’s two-week vacation — the moment that seemed to crystallize for many senior staffers that the fissure between campaign and candidate had grown too wide to manage.
There was a long argument over the Greek cruise, dating back weeks. Top staff not only didn’t want Gingrich to go but also fretted about the signal it sent for the presidential candidate to spend a fortnight abroad on a cruise ship. As one adviser put it: “Why not the Grand Canyon?”
Gingrich was determined to proceed with the trip, however, telling advisers that he had to do so for his wife. That exposed a broader problem, according to one source, which was that Gingrich and his wife were functioning as the de facto schedulers of the campaign and simply refusing to put the basic finance and grassroots events on the calendar that the senior staff deemed necessary.
A memo penned by longtime Gingrich aide Sam Dawson was sent via email to Gingrich while he was on the cruise, making clear the challenges the campaign was facing and asking to talk to him as soon as he arrived back in the country.
The memo outlined several possible courses of action. They included bowing out of the race gracefully; keeping on their current course, which staff didn’t think was viable; or slimming down the campaign considerably and trying a live-off-the-land strategy that centered on media appearances and debates.
The disagreements came to a head in a meeting Thursday in Washington that included Gingrich, Callista, Dawson and campaign manager Rob Johnson. Gingrich had just returned from New Hampshire, his first campaign appearance since May 26.
At that meeting Dawson and Johnson told Gingrich that the senior staff agreed that he deserved to have the campaign that he wanted but that they would not be part of it. It was, by all accounts, a short meeting.
In the wake of the departures going public, Gingrich insisted he would remain in the race, promising that the “campaign begins anew” with a scheduled speech in Los Angeles Sunday night.
“Going forward, we’re going to build a strategy around Newt, rather than fit Newt into a strategy,” said spokesman Joe DeSantis.