Whether by choice or necessity, election 2012 GOP Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich is running a national campaign directly out of his own head. Can this strategy deliver him a brokered victory in Tampa over the big-budgeted Romney campaign at this year’s Republican National Convention?
If you eschewed a Saturday night out on the town last night for a chance to watch the conclusion of the Nevada Caucus, then you got a microcosmic education in what separates the Romney and Gingrich campaigns. Mitt Romney’s anticipated landslide victory in the contest was capped off by a big-budget victory speech that included the trappings of a highly worked, robust Presidential campaign that is big on optics and bite-sized political quips.
This morning, I recall what seemed to be thousands of supporters chanting Rom-ney! Rom-ney! There was a light show, and loud music, and maybe even confetti — all of which coalesced around the candidate himself, who delivered a staccato stump speech that rolled out a catalog of carefully composed, focus-grouped talking points that blistered Obama’s failed first term in office. From the visual perspective, one was reminded of Obama’s nomination speech in 2008 — complete with Romanesque pillars, dramatic lighting, and a sense of messianic transcendence — a benchmark that the Romney camp keeps in mind as they ratchet up rallying events like these. Yes, the Romney campaign event in Nevada last night was heavy on optics, and clearly a dress rehearsal for how they intend to run against Barack Obama in the general election. The stage is set for an optics-driven campaign: who looks more Presidential.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, Newt Gingrich’s sparse follow-up press conference offered little in the way of flattering optics. While Mitt Romney appeared ensconced in the trappings of political victory and ascendency, Gingrich’s platform was a three-foot riser with a Newt 2012 background, a couple of flags bookending him on either side, and a noticeably disinterested press pool, which became even more disinterested once Gingrich led off the press conference by squelching any speculation that he was dropping out of the race. As Gingrich took to the podium, a half-dozen supporters’ hooting and clapping echoed in the hall with a ringing emptiness.
The optics for Gingrich were the converse of Romney’s: a man exposed, with no supporting infrastructure to bolster his Presidential persona. By contemporary political standards, it was just about as uninspiring as it gets.
And yet, how inspiring, indeed.
The fact is, no matter how improbable New Gingrich’s campaign to become the President of the United States may be, it is only improbable thanks to the cynical reality of what American politics has become. Having to appeal to a minimally informed, pop-driven electorate, national Presidential campaigns have become protracted, highly choreographed performances, where only the most photogenic, cinematic politicians rise to the top of the polls. In this way, the advisers and managers behind the candidates become the real brain trust of a candidate and eventual President. Case in point: the Democrats found in Barack Obama an ideal vehicle for veiling liberal ideologies behind a persona that the Obama 2008 campaign managed to create: a reasonable, moderate, intellectual, and attractive man. The Romney campaign is using the same playbook, with the Republican establishment looking to package its own ideologies behind a successful, affable moderate-turned-conservative who can ostensibly match Barack Obama in Presidential beauty.
Newt Gingrich, however, is either unable or unwilling to engage in the Presidential beauty makeover that propels men to become Presidents in this modern era. Instead, he has waged a “talking head” campaign — “a campaign of big ideas,” as he has called it. Although his competitors have derided that claim, Newt’s press conference last night proved it to be the case. In the midst of a rambling field of questions and answers, Gingrich rose out of the weeds a few times to give us a unique perspective into the way he runs his campaign, notably, that he is his own campaign adviser, he is never “handed” a list of talking points, and he essentially relies on national media coverage to make up for a lack of on-the-ground campaign infrastructure that has plagued him since Iowa. Here, an implicit distinction is drawn between Gingrich and Romney: while the Romney and Obama campaigns will use the same formula for victory, Gingrich’s campaign strategy will be starkly different. The Presidential beauty contest dynamic will be downplayed, simply by virtue of the fact that Gingrich will not play by those rules.
To be sure, Gingrich is not lacking in his own brand of Presidential beauty: he has made a compelling case for his competency, conservative ideas, and bold plans, some of which has lost visibility due to his shift toward an attack-based campaign. Gingrich has also argued his own electability against Obama not by showcasing his campaign’s ability to construct electability optics, but rather by challenging the President to Lincoln-Douglas-style debates, or otherwise following Obama around the campaign trail and sucking up media attention — a talent that Gingrich has deftly proven thus far in this election cycle.
The campaign of a candidate like Gingrich — one who writes and articulates his own talking points, who walks head first into the clutches of the liberal media, who relies on national media exposure to supplement a lack of state-side campaign infrastructure — is, from a substance point of view, a noble and refreshing one in contrast to the last decade of Presidential campaigns. Political analysts are quick to say that this style will never work, citing examples of other minimalist Presidential campaigns alla Pat Buchanan, Ralph Nader, and even Ron Paul. But none of those three candidates ever led a national Presidential poll once, let alone twice. None of them have ever won a Primary like South Carolina. Even in this election, both Ron Paul and Rick Santorum are running the same brand of spartan campaign as Gingrich — and they are losing miserably. The fact that Gingrich has held the lead twice in the primary campaign speaks to the suitability of his campaign style, however much it may be a necessity and not a choice on his part.
At present, the Republican establishment is clearly backing Mitt Romney, both financially and morally. But the fact is, the Republican establishment will be obliged to back whomever gets the nomination this year. Barack Obama is too vulnerable for the GOP to give up on re-taking the White House in 2012. In Mitt Romney, there is no doubt that his willingness to serve as a mouthpiece for the GOP’s agenda makes him the more attractive — and more workable — candidate. But if Newt Gingrich can continue to run his “talking head” campaign successfully and survive up until the Republican convention in Tampa, his noble campaign — while improbable — could reveal itself to be in a style worthy of the Republican establishment backing.
By Michael Nace