Of all the orthodoxies Newt Gingrich has challenged over the years, there is one fundamental but unnoticed orthodoxy he is testing this political season — and it is one of America’s most beloved elements of folklore.
In one fevered month of unbroken, unprecedented and unanticipated ascent in the polls, the former House speaker is taking on perhaps the cardinal principle of presidential politics itself. It’s the notion that American chief executives win the White House by undertaking an intimate political rite of passage in Iowa and New Hampshire, winning public support one handshake and one coffee at a time, shaping their views and perspectives one gingham-covered kitchen table conversation and one raucous town meeting at a time and demonstrating the discipline required for presidential leadership by building a political organization one precinct and one county at a time.
Gingrich doesn’t have the time to do that. His rise came too late in the political season, and his political exchequer is too slight to undertake it. But that is almost beside the point. Gingrich is an insurgent, a self-styled revolutionary, and if he is to topple bedrock principles of politics, then sweeping away one of the myths of politics is an implicit part of his movement — and an explicit part of his temperament.
Gingrich isn’t the first insurgent to ride a surge into Iowa and New Hampshire. More than a quarter-century ago, in 1984, when former Vice President Walter F. Mondale was the establishment candidate, Sen. Gary W. Hart of Colorado finished second in Iowa and then stunned Mondale by winning New Hampshire. Hart campaigned on a platform much like Gingrich’s; his mantra was “new ideas,” an intoxicating chant in a party stifled by persistent old ideas and choked by powerful old interest groups.
But the Hart campaign sweated the details. One of the organizational architects of the Hart victory in New Hampshire was Jeanne Shaheen, later elected governor of New Hampshire and now the state’s senior senator. Quietly, out of sight of press and politicos, she and Sue Casey built a formidable political machine, perhaps the greatest organized uprising in the state since the Indian Stream Rebellion of 1832-1835.
While Hart prevailed with a melding of ideas and organization, Gingrich is operating with only half that formula. His New Hampshire organization, for example, is almost nonexistent, run by a tea party activist who has been on staff less than two months and whom GOP regulars dismiss as being on the fringe of the fringe. The campaign has about one-eighth as many coordinators as those deployed by the master of organization, the former Bain Capital business consultant Mitt Romney.
The Gingrich rationale
That, of course, may mean nothing. Gingrich may have an insight (or 600 of them) possessed by few others and a campaign message unrivaled in its appeal in a time of economic uneasiness. In fact, that’s the entire rationale of the Gingrich campaign, which could be why he leads in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida — three of the first four contests. Mr. Romney retains the advantage only in New Hampshire, where he owns a vacation house and where he is a familiar figure because of his four years as the governor of neighboring Massachusetts, his presidential campaign in 2008 and his five years of nonstop organizing.
Gingrich likes nothing so much as to assail all the assumptions, and he is doing that in the two early states, so much so that established political figures (some of whom once were rebels themselves) see his campaign as an affront to the ethos of the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary themselves.
“In New Hampshire, you have always had to run a ‘see me, touch me, feel me’ campaign,” former Gov. John H. Sununu, a Romney supporter, said in an interview. “Gingrich is campaigning through a newspaper endorsement.”
Sununu was referring to the endorsement provided last month by the state’s largest newspaper, the Manchester Union Leader, a devoutly conservative publication whose support hasn’t always provided the margin of victory.
“A Union Leader endorsement in New Hampshire is very valuable and important, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to win,” former Gov. Pete du Pont of Delaware, who won the paper’s support in 1988, said in a telephone conversation. “I noticed that myself.”
Du Pont finished in fourth place with 10.7 percent.
The question now confronting Iowa and New Hampshire is whether Gingrich has cracked the genetic code for running for president, letting poll numbers, debate performances and cost-free newspaper and television interviews trump actual campaigning. He did not, for example, appear in New Hampshire for more than a fortnight after receiving the endorsement of the Union Leader, which for decades has been the torchbearer for the romantic notion that the state’s primary is the ultimate expression of press-the-flesh, meet-the-people democracy.
This gambit has been tried twice before. In 1984, the year Mr. Hart rode his insurgency to a Granite State victory, the political experts saw the Democratic contest as a struggle between Mondale and Sen. John H. Glenn Jr. of Ohio, a former astronaut and symbolic hero of the Camelot years.
Mondale prepared for Iowa, which he won, and New Hampshire, which he lost, in the hard, traditional way, building a strong organization in Iowa’s 99 counties and New Hampshire’s 10 counties day by day. Glenn did not, relying on gauzy television ads and on a bump from the release of the Project Mercury-oriented film “The Right Stuff,” which went into wide distribution three days before the Iowa caucuses. Glenn finished fifth in Iowa, behind even Sen. Alan Cranston of California, and third in New Hampshire.
Lodge is only precedent
The only success for a no-campaign campaign came 48 years ago, when Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona and Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York battled throughout January and February of 1964, only to see a write-in campaign for former Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. of Massachusetts gather inexplicable support in March. Lodge, the American ambassador to South Vietnam, never came closer to Concord or Manchester than the outskirts of Saigon, but he won the New Hampshire primary with nearly 36 percent of the vote.
Now Gingrich is challenging the traditional rhythms again. It’s a high-stakes gamble, but then again, that’s the kind he likes best. That’s also why he has surged to the front of the polls.