Newt Gingrich prides himself on being a student of history, but the mass exodus of his campaign team Thursday suggests that the former speaker didn’t bother to study what it takes to become president. Gingrich has always wanted to do things his way. Now he’ll have to.
That isn’t to predict what will happen to his presidential candidacy going forward. John McCain’s implosion at roughly the same time in the cycle four years ago and his eventual resurrection against the odds should be a caution against blanket pronouncements.
But comparisons between the Gingrich and McCain campaigns go only so far. As one Republican strategist pointed out late Thursday, McCain lost several top staffers, including his campaign manager, chief strategist and communications team, but he kept the support of key elected officials and others. He had a base of support in New Hampshire, owing to his primary victory there in 2000.
“Races are not about staff,” said Mike DuHaime, who was Rudy Giuliani’s manager during the primaries and later joined the McCain team in the general election. “When staff left McCain, he survived because none of his elected official endorsers, party official endorsers or volunteer leaders left him. The difference here is that Speaker Gingrich does not have a similar level of support among the rank and file, which will make this harder to withstand.”
Certainly there are some similarities to McCain, particularly the fact that Gingrich’s campaign, like McCain’s, has major money problems, as numerous advisers made clear Thursday. “We were living a Cadillac campaign on a Bud Light budget,” said David Carney, one of the Gingrich advisers who departed.
As bad as McCain’s plight was in the summer of 2007 — staff cuts, a team in turmoil, loss of confidence, deep money woes — Gingrich’s is worse. So tight was the money that Gingrich’s team couldn’t execute some of the basic plans they had agreed on earlier in the year. The campaign plan called for making a splash with a strong finish in the Iowa straw poll in August, but Gingrich didn’t have the money required to pay the registration fee or to purchase the list of past caucus attendees from the state party.
McCain was prepared to endure the abuse of the chattering class and to accept the humiliation of his suddenly reduced status that summer of 2007. He flew commercial to New Hampshire, carrying his own bag, and quietly campaigned, often without any significant attention from the press. Gingrich reportedly flew commercial on his New Hampshire trip this week, but is he prepared for months of that kind of life, after years of private jets?
Gingrich has been such a fixture in the Republican Party hierarchy for so long that it’s easy to forget why he may have been so ill-prepared for the campaign. Though he served as speaker of the House, he had never been elected to anything other than a congressional district in Georgia. He sought to marshal support for a conservative agenda, but that is not the same as persuading people to trust you with the presidency.
“Newt doesn’t have a special — almost singular — relationship with the voters of a critical early primary state like McCain did in New Hampshire,” said Brian Jones, a former McCain adviser. “Also, McCain’s undoing was a byproduct of poor management and planning, not indiscriminate spending at Tiffany’s and attacking beloved Republicans.”
Nothing about the opening stages of his campaign has reflected well on the candidate. Gingrich had a year or more to get ready for the presidential campaign. Yet, when he got to the point of running, he appeared utterly unprepared for the task at hand. He had no finance team to draw on and chafed at making calls to raise money. He took months beyond his originally stated deadline to actually form a campaign committee, largely because of business entanglements that he should have unwound in the past year.
His appearance on NBC’s “Meet The Press,” in which he attacked the budget and Medicare proposals of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), created such uproar that Gingrich disavowed his comments, sort of. He got further tangled up over an account at Tiffany’s, where he ran up bills of up to $500,000.
He undertook a vigorous trip through Iowa, but then, against the advice of staff, he and his wife Callista went on a cruise to the Greek isles, rather than continue the mundane but necessary work of tramping through other early states. Ultimately the staff revolted, and today Gingrich is left with no infrastructure and no senior adviser to help him.
What happened Thursday shouldn’t be understated. Staff shake-ups are not uncommon in presidential campaigns. Mass defections are. This wasn’t an attempt by the candidate to fix a broken team. This was an effort by the team to say they were through trying to fix a broken candidate. The Gingrich team broadcast a message of no confidence in the candidate that was loud and clear.
The other notable thing about the staff resignations and Gingrich’s now-difficult situation is the degree to which Republican strategists think it will not have a significant impact on the shape of the GOP race.
One strategist who is working for another candidate was asked Thursday night how the departure would affect the race. The strategist e-mailed back a one-word reply: “Doesn’t.” That is probably an overstatement, but though Gingrich has been a major figure in the Republican Party, he had not made himself a major factor in the nomination battle.
McCain was not leading in the polls at the time of his troubles in 2007, but he was considered the nominal frontrunner for the nomination. His problems opened up the nomination to everyone else, and it was in large part because of their own mistakes that he survived. What space Gingrich’s problems open up is more minimal.
The former speaker drew only 6 percent in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll of the Republican field. That put him tied for fourth place with Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.). A third of all Republicans said they definitely would not consider voting for him. The only Republicans with a worse rating on that were Sarah Palin and Ron Paul. Only 50 percent of Republicans said they thought Gingrich had the kind of personality and temperament to serve as president.
Some strategists believe Gingrich’s weakened condition provides more space for a candidate to emerge from the most conservative and anti-establishment wing of the party. That could be Palin, should she decide to run, or Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). Gingrich’s woes have sparked more speculation about Texas Gov. Rick Perry as a possible candidate, but he is still weeks away, at the least, from a decision, with many possible obstacles to consider.
Gingrich, the son of an Army infantryman, will soldier on, ever confident in his ability to shine in debates and affect the race through the power of his performances there. The first test will come Monday night in New Hampshire. But it will be the fallow periods between the debates that will prove far more challenging.