Newt’s Not Here, Man

Cain and Gingrich are making the wrong campaign moves, and winning. Why?

Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich
Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich at the CNN Republican presidential debate

Photographs by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.

On Nov. 5, with just five non-holiday Saturdays left till the Iowa caucuses, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain will be in Texas. Let the other candidates flip pancakes and stockpile antifreeze in Iowa. Gingrich and Cain will be in Houston for a “modified Lincoln-Douglas debate” about entitlement spending. The room seats only 1,000, and tickets start $200, with the proceeds going to the Texas Tea Party Patriots PAC.

Is this a weird scheduling decision? No doubt. That’s not to say it will hurt Cain or Gingrich. Check the polls: Gingrich has recovered some of his old intra-Republican popularity. Cain is now the front-runner in Iowa and in a bunch of later primary states where voters know the candidates mostly through debates and Fox News hits—forums where these two shine. Both candidates are doing even better than they were before they converted their campaigns into full-service book tours.

Just look at their schedules. On Aug. 13, Herman Cain lost the Ames straw poll handily, coming in fifth place. He left Iowa with polls showing him in low single digits. On Aug. 18, he officially launched his 9-9-9 tax plan. On Sept. 24, Cain won the Florida Republican Party’s quadrennial straw poll. On Oct. 4, he released his memoir and started his book tour. Over the next two weeks, four Iowa polls were released, and Cain led in all four. But Cain himself wasn’t in Iowa. His first post-straw-poll visit to the state came on Sunday. The entire Cain surge happened while he was elsewhere, with only four Iowa staffers and a sloppy local organization. And even before the surge, he’d spent less time in the state than Rick Santorum or Michele Bachmann.

It’s not supposed to work like this. Daron Shaw, a University of Texas political scientist, has spent more than a decade analyzing the effects of campaign appearances on voters and election results. In his research, most recently in The Race to 270, Shaw has determined that in-person campaign stops do more for candidates than anything else. In 2006, after Rick Perry hired Shaw to craft his re-election campaign, Shaw noticed that campaign stops in places like Lubbock wound up giving the candidate oodles of free, uncritical media, and permanent poll bounces of up to 4 points.

“You can sit in a studio and do 12 interviews on the nightly news in six markets in the time it takes you to go out to Lubbock,” Perry svengali Dave Carney told the journalist Sasha Issenberg. “The actual visits make a bigger, more lasting impact than just being on the news.”

By every normal metric, Cain and Gingrich should be bottoming out. When Gingrich’s first campaign team bolted, knives red and heavy in their hands, they explained that the candidate wasn’t doing what it would take to win. Gingrich wanted to keep doing events for his new book and his self-parodying educational films. They thought he was wasting time. He hired a new staff and kept schlepping the “cultural documents.” So far in October, according to Politico’s candidate schedule, and not counting all-candidate debates, Gingrich has held nine public events of which five were promotions for a book or movie. And what was Gingrich’s old team doing? Dave Carney is working for none other than Rick Perry, who campaigned the old-fashioned way, partially disowned his book, and fell to earth faster than Icarus cradling a space heater.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time,” says Rich Galen, a Republican strategist who worked for Gingrich in the 1990s. “People like me think that if you don’t hire us, you’re not serious. They didn’t hire us, but Cain and Gingrich know what they’re good at.” The centrist Republican strategist Mark McKinnon agrees with that. “It’s just exposing the fact that old-school organizing just isn’t as relevant or important as it used to be in today’s media world.”

Time for the caveats! Gingrich never had a real path to the convention, and he still doesn’t. You can poll a Holiday Inn ballroom worth of Republican consultants, and most of them will say the Cain surge is a hiccup en route to a Romney nomination. Polling well in October doesn’t mean winning elections in January. It just means that two candidates who aren’t working the early states so hard are surpassing some of the candidates who are. Santorum’s the only one temperamental enough to talk about it, but surely the rest of them hate it, too.

There’s a popular going theory in the punditocracy now: Cain’s just proving that every outsider candidate will get a bubble. Today, Cain, tomorrow Santorum. I don’t buy it. The Cain/Gingrich un-campaigns are succeeding because they understand how the media works. Just look at how they’ve spent the last decade. Gingrich, ousted from House leadership 13 years ago, spent the Bush era writing identical-looking policy books and building a honeycomb of nonprofits: American Solutions, the Center for Health Transformation, on and on. Cain ran for U.S. Senate in 2004 and lost, but before and after that he was a pundit and radio host who could walk onto Fox News almost as easily as Gingrich could. Starting in 2009, he spoke to every Tea Party that would have him. That, not some sort of meticulous Washington meeting schedule, was how he found his campaign chief and built his network.

In the last 10 years, Cain and Gingrich have learned to make bold pronouncements and endorse wild gimmicks, like Gingrich’s plan to break up courts if they annoy conservatives, or Cain’s 9-9-9 implosion of the tax code. They run their policy shops the way a contrarian editor might run his magazine. It works. Bill O’Sullivan, the treasurer of Texas Tea Party Patriots, explains that Cain and Gingrich have won over the party’s base because they barrel through the normal constraints of campaigns and the “glorified spelling bees” that are media-sponsored debates.

“What we’re trying to do is find leaders,” he says, “and these guys have decided to go outside the paradigm. They’re showing enormous courage.”

Another caveat: They’re allowed to be courageous because they’re not being attacked. Between his June collapse and the Oct. 18 debate (when Romney pantsed him over the idea of a health care mandate), no other candidate bothered to poke at Gingrich. Not until the last two debates did any candidate go after Cain at all. But nobody’s bothering to attack Santorum, either, and he keeps struggling for the attention and affection that comes easy to Cain.

No, there must be some other reason why this is happening—why we’re this close to the caucuses and 35 percent or so of Republicans in key states are still smitten with Cain or Gingrich. It’s obvious. It’s the Tea Party. For nearly three years, the GOP’s base has believed, and been told to believe, that it is in an existential battle for civilization, that politicians who got a few things wrong can never be trusted again. (Sorry about that, Rick, Rick, and Michele.) They joined a movement that they could spend all of their media-consuming minutes on, whether it meant watching Fox News or joining Glenn Beck’s 9-12 book clubs. They don’t need Herman Cain to work them over in person, carrying volunteer sign-up sheets, like Tim Pawlenty did. They know him well enough already. It might not last, and it might all end with a Romney nomination, but they’re not going to give up on it.

“Think about what they said at Lexington and Concord,” says Bill O’Sullivan. “If they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”