As Mitt Romney gears up for his November showdown with Barack Obama, memories of the bruising primary fight for the Republican nomination are beginning to fade. That’s natural; the same thing happens every four years. This year, however, fading memories constitute premature political amnesia, for the 2012 Republican primary represented a radical—but likely permanent—departure from decades of established campaign norms. While Romney may have captured the nomination, it is Newt Gingrich who has given us a sneak preview of the national primary campaigns of the future.Nobody knew when the curtain would finally come down on the Gingrich campaign. At times it felt like only the lead actor ever truly believed the script was plausible enough to attract a crowd, but Gingrich’s perseverance paid off in a way few observers anticipated. Like many Broadway productions that run longer than expected, Gingrich 2012 underwent a change of cast: Most of his senior staff quit en masse last summer after Gingrich embarked on a ten-day luxury Mediterranean cruise with his wife just days after officially launching his candidacy. He then muddled through the rest of 2011, drawing little attention. Fourth-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire appeared to confirm what everyone knew: Gingrich had zero chance of becoming the Republican challenger to President Obama. And then the oddest thing happened: Gingrich won South Carolina, and won it convincingly. Washington suffered parallel paroxysms of hilarity and alarm. As the Republican strategist Mike Murphy put it on Meet the Press the next day, The reason that liquor sales in the last 24 hours have quadrupled in Washington is truckloads of champagne are going over to the Pelosi office and hard whiskey’s going to the Republican office . . . because Newt Gingrich cannot carry in a general election a swing state if it was made of feathers. The Republican establishment needn’t have caused their livers so much damage. Despite winning two primaries (the other being his home state of Georgia, in which none of the other candidates competed), Gingrich was never a serious contender for the nomination. Even before the primaries got truly vicious, Gingrich’s unfavorable ratings were historically high. Three separate polls conducted between New Hampshire and South Carolina showed Gingrich with a favorable/unfavorable split ranging from -29 to -34. By comparison, those same polls had Romney between +7 and -18, while Obama hovered between +5 and -3. As Romney’s campaign pointed out with devastating effectiveness before Florida, Gingrich carried too much baggage to be a viable candidate for the nomination. Of course, in a race that featured Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain, Gingrich was far from the lone quixotic candidate. Unlike the aforementioned troika, however, Gingrich steadfastly refused to quit. And while there have been protracted primaries in the modern era (Hillary Clinton vs. Barack Obama comes immediately to mind) rarely has a candidate as weak as Gingrich ploughed on so long. To illustrate the point, consider that the last Republican to withdraw in 2008 was Mike Huckabee, who did so on March 4. Four years earlier, John Kerry had the Democratic nomination wrapped up by March 2. Despite his stunning victory in New Hampshire, John McCain, a much more viable candidate than Gingrich, bowed out of the 2000 primary on March 9. Gingrich, however, continued until May 2. Why, and how, did he stay in the race so long, and what does it portend for future primary campaigns? A generous assessment of Gingrich’s decision to soldier on into late spring might conclude he was hoping to stay in the race long enough to play spoiler, pick up a few delegates and perhaps win the odd state in the South. Doing so, the argument goes, would increase his leverage with the party’s eventual nominee. Gingrich certainly ticked all three of those boxes and, having added to his hand a king, if not the ace he was hoping for, seemed reasonably well placed to ask Romney for a decent consideration. (Newt Gingrich, Secretary of Agriculture?) According to the Gingrich campaign’s communications director, Joe DeSantis, Mitt Romney did not offer Gingrich a position in his cabinet in return for Gingrich dropping out of the race. But DeSantis added that, if Romney were to ask, “I can’t imagine a circumstance where [Gingrich] would turn it down.” Cabinet posts are not the only patronage positions a President can dispense, but they are very high profile, and “high profile” is something that everyone who has observed Gingrich over the years can agree he enjoys. Nor is it unheard of for a primary opponent to attempt to trade his exit from the race for an even higher-ranking position in a future administration: the vice presidency. It is now well known, for example, that during the 2008 primary John Edwards offered to endorse Barack Obama in late January—after the New Hampshire primary confirmed Edwards had no hope of winning the nomination—in return for Obama selecting him as his running mate. Obama turned down the offer, and Edwards eventually dropped out on January 30.1 By staying in the race far longer than Edwards, did Gingrich accumulate more influence than if he had withdrawn after, say, his loss in Florida in late January? A look at the historical record, scant as it is since the primary system as we know it today dates only from 1972, suggests that there is no correlation between the length of time a candidate remains in the primary contest and his odds of receiving a cabinet post, should his party emerge victorious in November. What seems to matter more is not how long a candidate persists but how soon he or she started. The template for victory in a fifty-state primary contest is Jimmy Carter in 1976. Carter’s strategy that year—prove viability by winning or exceeding expectations in Iowa and New Hampshire; shore up fundraising, staff and endorsements; follow up with strong showings in other early states; ride the financial and press momentum generated by these victories to dominate the larger, more expensive states later in the calendar—has been adopted by every candidate since. Serious challengers in 1976, such as Frank Church and Jerry Brown, only entered the race at the start of May. They performed credibly, handing defeats to Carter throughout the country, but there was simply too much ground to make up in a short period. Carter 1976 thus remains the gold standard. Our analysis can therefore only begin in 1980. Which candidates, who won at least one state but never had a realistic shot at the nomination, remained in the race as long as Gingrich? Essentially we’re looking for the bronze medalist: a candidate who might have had a brief moment in the sun but who failed to mount a sustained challenge. This rules out someone like Hillary Clinton in 2008 or George H.W. Bush in 1980. We are left with only a handful of names: Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, Pat Robertson in 1988 and Jerry Brown in 1992. Jackson was a far stronger candidate than Gingrich, especially in 1988, but since the Democrats lost both years we will never know if he would have been offered a cabinet position. However, neither Brown nor Robertson received a phone call from the presidential transition teams. If Gingrich was truly after a major role in a Romney Administration then he probably did his chances more harm than good by refusing to bow out after Florida. That is not to say an early exit makes sense for every candidate. For some, notably those in second place such as Rick Santorum this year, it is sensible to remain in the race even after the frontrunner has reached the point where, in former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards’s memorable phrase, being caught with a live boy or a dead girl is the only way he can lose. As Romney’s main challenger at the end of the day, Santorum is a credible option to be selected as his running mate in the fall. Romney’s weakness with the conservative wing of the Republican Party is well established and adding Santorum to the ticket could help Romney to shore up his right flank. By winning as many states as he did, Santorum is also well placed to be a leading candidate the next time the Republican nomination becomes available. Meanwhile, at 68 and having never held elected office in the 21st century, 2012 is surely Newt’s swansong. Since Gingrich is unlikely to be offered a cabinet post or be named the running mate, and is well down on the totem pole for a possible 2016 nomination, what motivated him to stay in the race as long as he did? One explanation is ego. Like the sportsman who comes out of retirement because he cannot adjust to life without the cheering crowds, so too did Gingrich clearly relish his last chance to perform before a national audience. Nor is this an unfair hypothesis for a man who believes himself to be a “world-historical figure” and a “defender of civilization.” But ego alone is an insufficient explanation; after all, anyone who runs for President has to possess an unusually high regard for himself. That explanation also obscures the larger significance of the Gingrich campaign. Two changes to the primary system have occurred since 2008. The first, of course, is the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United case.2 The ability for corporations, unions and, particularly, wealthy individuals to spend an unlimited amount of money in support of the candidate of their choice represents the greatest change to the system of primary elections since the Democrats rewrote their primary rules after 1968. Poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire traditionally sent a signal to voters, and particularly to donors, that a candidate was not viable. Money would dry up and it would become nearly impossible to continue campaigning. Citizens United obliterated that paradigm, and the biggest beneficiary was Newt Gingrich. Gingrich won a measly 13 percent of the vote in Iowa and failed even to reach double digits in New Hampshire. In years gone by, Gingrich would have been forced to either quit the race soon after New Hampshire or, had he stayed in, to continue as a zombie candidate, unable to marshal a field operation or advertise on television, radio and the internet. Joe DeSantis agrees that Citizens United, by giving birth to Super PACs, played a crucial role in helping Gingrich stay alive, especially in South Carolina: “Newt did really well in the South Carolina debates, which vaulted us to victory, but the fact that [our] Super PAC was on the air set the table for us to do very well there. It was certainly important.” And how momentous was South Carolina? It “was a must-win for us”, said DeSantis, “there’s no way to continue if we didn’t win South Carolina.” Gingrich himself is similarly cognizant of the importance of his Super PAC, and in particular his billionaire benefactor, the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who donated $5 million to the floundering Gingrich campaign after the Iowa primary. When that failed to resuscitate the campaign Adelson’s wife Miriam kicked in another $5 million in the lead-up to South Carolina. And as if to prove that casino owners can be just as profligate as their customers, Adelson forked over yet another $5 million in mid-February after it became apparent that Gingrich’s win in South Carolina was not the game changer they hoped it would be. All told, the Gingrich Super PAC, Winning Our Future, raised $18.8 million through the end of February, of which the Adelsons contributed $16.5 million. To put that into further perspective, Adelson’s $5 million donation in February was more than twice as much as the Gingrich campaign raised in the entire month. Unsurprisingly, Gingrich, in his concession speech, went out of his way to thank the Adelsons for their support. The second change was the Republican Party’s decision, taken in September 2008, to modify the way states allocate delegates. In 2012, delegates chosen in primaries and caucuses before April 1 would be awarded proportionally rather than on the winner-take-all basis of recent cycles. The Republican National Committee did this to reduce the clout of early primary states like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. As one Republican national committeeman stated, the new rules aimed to “reduce the possibility that any candidate in any one primary in any one state can deliver a knockout blow that early in the process and end the process prematurely.” This rule change has garnered far less media attention than Citizens United, even though many Beltway insiders consider its effect to be just as important, if not more so, in extending the Republican primary. DeSantis, for one, believes the impact of Super PACs has been exaggerated: “The RNC rules and the way delegates are awarded extended [the primary] far, far more than any Super PAC did.” Nor is DeSantis alone in this assertion. Republican Governors Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Chris Christie of New Jersey have both expressed concern that the rule changes unnecessarily lengthened the Republican primary season. But just how drastic are these changes? In an analysis conducted in late March, political scientists Josh Putnam and John Sides argued, “the notion that the delegate rule changes have dragged out the primary . . . is a myth.” If anything, the new RNC rules “actually accelerated this year’s primary, not slowed it.” They found that if the results of 2012 were replicated in 2008, all else being equal (a notion they admit is tenuous but necessary for the purposes of their calculation), the 2008 rules would have reduced Romney’s delegate count at the time by a not-inconsiderable 56 delegates. What’s more, they note, the Democrats have been using proportional allocation since the mid-1980s “without apparent catastrophes.” If there is some disagreement as to how much significance should be attached to Citizens United in prolonging the primary, there can be little doubt it has made it a nastier process. John McCain, no stranger to vicious campaigning (his bid for the 2000 nomination was sunk in part by a slur that he had fathered an illegitimate black baby), said the 2012 primary was the “nastiest I’ve ever seen.” Mitt Romney ran a traditional, pre-Citizens United campaign. He performed well in Iowa despite the state not being a naturally fertile ground for his brand of Republicanism. In friendlier territory in New Hampshire, Romney won a convincing victory. He emerged from the Granite State as the overwhelming favorite and proceeded to South Carolina with at least one eye on the general election. What Romney’s campaign had not counted on was Sheldon Adelson’s checkbook. Almost by definition, the only way a struggling candidate like Newt Gingrich can become relevant is to bring down the frontrunner. Gingrich decided to go for it, and unlike in years past, the infusion of Adelson’s cash allowed Gingrich to swing away. Romney suddenly became Gingrich’s personal punching bag, and Romney’s favorability ratings soon showed bruises. Romney’s campaign determined its candidate should refrain from hitting back because doing so would undermine his appeal to the independents he needs to persuade in November. Romney had hoped to ignore Gingrich but after getting thumped by the portly Georgian in South Carolina he was forced to take seriously the Gingrich threat. Unable to ignore him any longer, Team Romney unloaded its considerable resources on Gingrich in the ten days between South Carolina and Florida. The New York Times reported that, “Negative ads were so prevalent in the final week before the Florida primary that they accounted for 92 percent of all campaign commercials that ran.” Fully 68 percent of all ads in Florida in the last week attacked Gingrich. It was a brutally successful assault, of the kind usually reserved for the latter stages of a heated general election campaign. In DeSantis’s view, the way Romney attacked Gingrich, a candidate from his own party, was “unprecedented.” While we would prefer our candidates for high office to appeal to the better angels of our nature, the truth is that negative ads are effective. But as Romney found out, they tend to bloody the nose of both the aggressor and the target. As Ross Douthat explained, “The Gingrich revolt was temporary, but suppressing it came at a cost: Romney’s own negatives went up while his negative ads hammered Gingrich in Florida and Nevada.” It is why most primary campaigns, especially those of the frontrunner, usually refrain from going too negative too early. In the brave new world of Super PACs, the old rules have been thrown out the window. Flush with cash as a result of Citizens United, Super PACs became the dominant force in the primary. In South Carolina, for example, Super PACs outspent the campaigns by a two-to-one margin. Provided they can find a benefactor, no longer will candidates who have little hope of winning the nomination be forced to quit the race after two or three states. The savage internecine battles of this primary season will likely become the rule, not the exception. Gingrich 2012 was a rollercoaster in which not even the candidate himself appeared to know whether the next turn would be up or down, left or right. Gingrich’s unique combination of the brilliant and the bizarre was on full display throughout. The same candidate who blew his miniscule path to the nomination by following his South Carolina victory with a zany proposal to establish a colony on the Moon also delivered the most devastating attack on Mitt Romney’s private equity career. It was a campaign that delighted and confounded the punditocracy. There may be something to be said for that in our age of obsession with being entertained. But if nothing is done to reform campaign financing laws, historians may well look back on this primary and assign Newt’s campaign a most unlikely place in history: canary in the coal mine. 1Reported in Obama campaign manager David Plouffe’s The Audacity to Win (Viking, 2009), p. 159. 2Technically, Citizens United itself did not allow individuals to donate unlimited amounts of money to Super PACs. The ruling applied only to corporations and unions. Three months after that decision, however, a lower court (the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia) applied the reasoning enunciated in Citizens United to throw out any limits on the size of donations from individuals to “independent expenditure only” committees, aka Super PACs. This essay uses the term “Citizens United” to encompass the lower court decision both because the Supreme Court ruling provided the intellectual foundation for unlimited individual donations and because it is useful shorthand well understood by the broader public.
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Appeared in: Volume 8, Number 1What Newt Means
Published on: August 10, 2012
Published on: August 10, 2012
The Newt Gingrich campaign amused the pols and pundits, but what it says about future primary contests isn't the least bit funny.