Why Newt Gingrich’s campaign crashed

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of Newt Gingrich campaign spokesman Joseph DeSantis. This version has been corrected.

June 10, 2011

On one side was an unconventional presidential candidate. He was enthralled with making documentaries to sell his ideas and captivated by the notion that wooing Chinese Americans could be a key to winning Iowa.

On the other side was a team of political operatives shocked by the flamboyance of the candidate’s stumbles, his resistance to their advice and the dire state of his campaign finances. While he was away on a lavish vacation that they had warned him not to take, they drafted a memo raising the possibility of a graceful exit from the race.

In retrospect, the crash was pretty much what many expected would happen if Newt Gingrich ever decided to run for president.

But the entire 29-day saga — from the moment he announced his candidacy until Thursday’s mass resignation of virtually his entire campaign hierarchy — played out more quickly and more spectacularly than his allies had feared.

As the political world is writing him off, the former House speaker continues to insist that he will carry on, that he will even re­invent the whole art and science of campaigning for national office.

“There is a fundamental strategic difference between the traditional consulting community and the kind of campaign I want to run,” Gingrich told reporters camped out Friday at his suburban Virginia house. “We’ll find out over the next year who’s right.”

Added Joseph DeSantis, one of his newly installed campaign spokesmen: “Going forward, we’re going to build a strategy around Newt, rather than fit Newt into a strategy.”

Gingrich is scheduled to try to jump-start his campaign with a speech Sunday evening before the Republican Jewish Coalition in Los Angeles. The next day, he will participate in a candidate debate in New Hampshire.

Many of his top advisers had never worked with Gingrich before. They learned quickly, the hard way, something well-known to those who knew him back in his days on Capitol Hill: He is a fountain of big ideas but sometimes has trouble sorting the good ones from the bad ones and often falls short on the follow-through.

One longtime friend and ally, speaking candidly in return for anonymity, said: “Newt has not grasped that a presidential campaign is different from running around the country giving
speeches.”

The problem for his team wasn’t that it didn’t have a game plan. They had one they thought suited Gingrich’s gift of inspiring and mobilizing conservative voters.

Early in the year, sources who were involved in the operation said, Gingrich and his team had agreed to build a robust ground game in the early states and augment it with “new and different” approaches through social media and the Internet.

It would be expensive, but one thing they assumed they wouldn’t have to worry about was money. Gingrich had demonstrated he could raise money for the web of enterprises he has built since leaving Congress more than a dozen years ago.

That turned out to be one of their biggest miscalculations. The campaign had to be financed under rules that did not apply to his other organizations, and Gingrich had no finance team in place. Nor does he like to work the phones for money himself.

The campaign’s first goal was doing well in the August Iowa straw poll. But his advisers found they lacked even the $25,000 fee to enter it, or the $30,000 it would take to buy the list of previous caucusgoers.

Meanwhile, the campaign was hemorrhaging what money it had. Chartered aircraft alone cost as much as $500,000, said a source affiliated with the campaign who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. The source added that Gingrich insisted upon private planes because he wanted to make it home at night and couldn’t do that easily if he relied on commercial flight schedules. A Gingrich spokesman declined to comment on his spending habits.

It also became increasingly clear that Gingrich had little regard for the more pedestrian aspects of campaigning. As has been the case throughout his career, he was drawn to new ways of doing things. He was intrigued, for instance, when a Chinese American man approached him after an energy event and claimed that his ethnic community in Iowa was an untapped reservoir of 10,000 potential supporters. (The Census Bureau estimates Iowa’s Asian population at 1.7 percent of the state’s total population.)

Similarly, Gingrich and his wife, Callista, viewed their documentaries and books — a new one on American exceptionalism is due out next week — as ways of promoting big ideas that don’t fit easily into 30-second campaign commercials; his advisers saw them as distractions.

Some in the campaign privately blamed Callista, saying her husband was too deferential to her wishes.

Asked about that Friday, Gingrich retorted: “We make decisions as a couple. I think most couples would find that refreshing, not a problem.”

It was ironic that he should find himself fending off criticism of that sort. Until now, the thrice-married Gingrich has been trying to shake an image of being callous to the women he wed.

His campaign stumbled coming out of the gate, beset by a series of gaffes — including criticizing as “right-wing social engineering” the Medicare plan put forth by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and supported by nearly every House Republican.

There were also revelations that Gingrich had run up six-figure bills on a revolving charge account at Tiffany — not exactly creating the image of a fiscal conservative.

But what crystallized the dysfunction of the campaign for many of his top advisers was Gingrich’s insistence on taking a two-week vacation with his wife that included an expensive cruise in the Greek islands.

While Gingrich was gone, longtime aide Sam Dawson wrote a memo outlining three courses of action: withdrawing from the race, in a way that would maintain his reputation and earning power; maintaining the current course, which his strategists did not believe was feasible; slimming down the campaign to a live-off-the-land operation sustained by news coverage and the hope that Gingrich would distinguish himself at the debates.

Their disagreements came to a head in a meeting Thursday at Gingrich’s K Street offices that included the Gingriches, campaign manager Rob Johnson and Dawson.

At that session, which was brief, Dawson and Johnson told Gingrich that he deserved to have the campaign that he wanted.

But they also informed him that they — and much of the staff — would not be part of it.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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