Newt Gingrich’s Campaign: Can He Make His Poll Numbers the Caucus Results?

Dec 5, 2011 6:00am

DES MOINES, IOWA—The Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll crowned Newt Gingrich as the new frontrunner here this weekend, but as he works to achieve a victory at the caucuses next month, the former House Speaker has little organization compared to the assembled campaign structures of his opponents.

Gingrich’s Iowa co-chair, Greg Ganske, a former congressman and plastic surgeon in Iowa, admitted the campaign “got behind (in organizing) because of the summer troubles.” But that’s an understatement when looking at the campaign now: a surging candidate just one month before the caucuses kick off the voting season and very little traditional infrastructure to back up the numbers.

The campaign has six Iowa staffers and says they are hiring more, but in this season when organization may mean less than it ever has here, it may not matter.

Jeff Kaufman is the speaker pro tem of the Iowa House of Representatives, the third highest ranking position in the Iowa House, and he’s also Gingrich’s senior policy advisor — although he admits to wearing several hats.

Kaufman said the campaign is working “around the clock right now to put the mechanics and process in place.”

“Obviously it’s a bit late in the game to find a county chair for every county, but in every county you are likely to identify people who are Gingrich supporters,” Kaufman said. “There is no doubt about it, you are not going to see a Ron Paul-like machine at the caucuses.”

Kaufman did say supporters and undecided voters can count on one thing: Gingrich will be all over the state in the next month.

“What you are going to see in the next 29 days is Newt Gingrich everywhere. I believe that he’s going to depend on being in every corner of this state and I think you are going to see that constant presence here,” Kaufman said.

In a campaign cycle with different organizational levels among the candidates and only one candidate – Rick Santorum - trying to win the old fashioned way, by campaigning non-stop in the state and identifying precinct captains, Gingrich might be able to pull off a win with little organizational structure.

Caucus veteran and current communications director for Iowa governor Terry Branstad, Tim Albrecht notes that traditionally the “first thing organizationally campaigns do is cross off their list their 99 county chairs.”

“Twelve years ago Forbes and Bush had that done in June, four years ago Romney had it done during the summer and even Gov. Branstad had 99 county chairs before he formally announced in January 2010,” Albrecht said, who has worked for both Romney and Forbes in the state, but is unaligned this cycle. “That’s the first thing you check off on an organization check list.”

“No one has 99 county chairs and only Santorum has released extensive list of precinct leaders,” Albrecht added.

“A traditional campaign model says the campaign calls and calls and calls for ten hours a day, six days a week and you beg people to be county chairs and precinct leaders in the summer and fall,” Albrecht said, but not this time.

But Gingrich Iowa communications director Katie Koberg indicated their campaign has experienced the opposite of a typical caucus operation – the supporters calling them.

“They call up and say, ‘I want to be your precinct chair. I want to be your county chair. I want to be the one that speaks at your event. I’m in. Count me in. Cross that off your list,’” Koberg said.

And Albrecht says it is those grassroots volunteers that could lead Gingrich to victory because paid staffers this late in the game won’t be able to catch up.

“There’s nothing that the Gingrich campaign can do with paid staff to reach their poll numbers. They are going to have to rely on volunteers organically organizing themselves to get to that point,” Albrecht said. “Now the big unknown is if a large enough segment turns out enough of the vote that he needs to reach his poll number on caucus night. That remains to be seen.”

Albrecht had high praise for Gingrich’s Iowa communications director Katie Koberg and senior adviser Craig Schoenfeld, who both re-joined the campaign in November after leaving during a mass exodus of staffers in June, saying they were both highly respected here. Albrecht added there is just no way to identify every name of a caucus-going supporter with only 29 days to go that includes two holidays and a turn out Albrecht predicts could top 140,000. In 2008, there were 119,000 Republican caucus-goers.

The campaign is also going on the air here for the first time Monday. A minute long ad will appear statewide on broadcast and cable with an ad buy of $250,000.

The Gingrich team just opened their first office in the state last week with no plans to launch others at this time. The office is almost next to the Santorum headquarters in Urbandale. The campaign was just getting the office up and running with signs waiting to be hung two days after they opened when an ABC News reporter stopped by. Due to a gas leak in the building, it was empty aside from Schoenfeld and one volunteer. A strong smell of gas greeted the reporter, but Schoenfeld was still working saying he told the rest of the staff to work from home while they aired it out.

The other person working through the leak was a 25-year-old volunteer named Richard Bailey. He’s not from Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, or Sioux City. He trekked from San Diego to Iowa, taking a few days off of work to volunteer for the campaign.

Impressed with Gingrich’s debate performances and passionately wanting to help, he e-mailed the campaign’s Atlanta headquarters asking what he could do. Bailey, an analyst for an aerospace company, decided to come to Iowa Wednesday afternoon and landed in Des Moines 11 o’clock Thursday evening. He stayed the weekend helping with voter data entry and he hopes to come back next weekend for the ABC News/Yahoo! and Iowa GOP debate.

“What I like about Newt is that he’s not trying to come off as being the perfect person,” Bailey said, explaining why he left sunny California to come to Des Moines for the weekend seeing snow for the first time in years. “He clearly has a past that he’s going to have to, I guess, explain to — as the campaign progresses. But he’s not trying to sell himself as he is the perfect guy. He’s trying to say, here I am. And this is kind of my vision for America. And I respect that about him. I think some other candidates come off trying to maintain this image that they are a perfect person. No one’s perfect.”

Bailey added: “It’s more relatable in the sense that he’s not trying to maintain an image that’s easy for most Americans to see through. And Bailey said he wasn’t the only one who traded in vacation days to come work for the former Speaker of the House. He said he worked alongside a mom with two kids who drove from Texas to volunteer, and others came from Kansas and Indiana.

Of course none of these people can caucus, but they can help organize and try to bring their passion to Iowans in the lead up January 3rd.

Last week, Gingrich said his newfound frontrunner status was “disorienting” adding that the campaign is having “to re-think our own internal operations right now and where we are.”

Although almost all of the GOP candidates have surged at some point, Gingrich’s late boomlet with only a month to go before voting is undoubtedly the best time to have it, even if the organization can’t keep up. It’s important to remember that back during Michele Bachmann’s surge when she won the Ames Straw Poll in the summer, Gingrich didn’t even compete, choosing not to buy a lot.

Ganske, the doctor who Gingrich bunked with when he was in Iowa during those low points, said he counseled his friend to stay in the race during the lean times because he knew this surge was coming even when Gingrich confided in him that “the early days of this campaign was the worst political start he’d ever had in a campaign.”

“I just counseled him to hang in there and that you can run a campaign without a lot of expense. Stay with friends, bunk with people around Iowa, fly commercial, run with a lean staff and there are plenty of opportunities that you can still get exposure,” Ganske said with the confidence that his friend’s boomlet would come so soon before Iowans vote.

ABC News’ Arlette Saenz contributed to this report.

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