- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Newt Gingrich, who likes to dabble in history and futurism, is betting that caucus and primary politics have changed dramatically. If he’s right, Mr. Gingrich could emerge as the winner of the more than 1,600 Iowa precinct caucuses on Jan. 3 and have a real shot at the GOP presidential nomination and White House. If he’s wrong, his candidacy will stall in the snows of New Hampshire and he’ll find himself among the second-tier candidates who have enjoyed a day in the sun and are just beginning to realize they won’t be going to this year’s Republican National Convention to be anointed as the party’s standard-bearer.

In the past, victory in Iowa has gone to candidates who could relate to and excite Iowa voters while building an organization to deliver committed Republicans to their local caucuses on caucus night. The winners have always realized that this is no easy task because while it’s one thing to get Iowans to like them, it’s quite another to get those Iowans to drag themselves away from hearth and home on a cold and often snowy January night to find the appropriate caucus, stay through sometimes boring presentations from representatives of the various candidates and declare themselves.

Oh, there are some who go every cycle regardless. They are the primary targets of all presidential wannabes. Others may be so excited about Mr. Gingrich or Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney or Ron Paul that they’ll show up no matter the obstacles. The margin of victory in the past, however, has gone to the candidate who could identify and deliver the votes of those who might not have attended without prodding.

The candidate with the best organization doesn’t always win, but if the polls are close, the candidate with a strong organization on the ground invariably wins. Mr. Gingrich doesn’t have much on the ground, in part because his missteps earlier in the campaign hurt his fundraising and because from the beginning, he has been betting he doesn’t need a traditional organization. He expects his message and personality to enable him to debate or talk his way to victory.

That’s never happened before, but it is at least possible that in today’s world, it might work. A virtual organization tying supporters together via the Internet and its social-media manifestations could take the place of an on-the-ground organization to some extent, and Mr. Gingrich’s undeniable skill as a verbal warrior has excited people in Iowa looking for someone who can slug it out in a general-election debate with President Obama. If the world has changed as much as Mr. Gingrich seems to think, he may not need as extensive an organization as past candidates.

Four years ago, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee beat Mr. Romney and his purportedly superior organization. Managerial type that he was and is, Mr. Romney counted on organization alone to win. Mr. Huckabee had a message and, more important, the social-conservative activists in Iowa knew how to create and maintain an organization that kept Mr. Huckabee in the game. He also spent more time in Iowa than Mr. Romney with potential supporters in their homes, coffee shops and community centers. From the beginning, it was clear to close observers of Iowa politics that Mr. Huckabee’s appeal was real and he was a great retail politician.

I’ve been heavily involved in Iowa in previous cycles. In 1980, George H.W. Bush beat Ronald Reagan on caucus night purely because he had a better organization; if anyone could have talked his way to victory, it was Reagan, but even a great message wasn’t enough. In 1988, Sen. Bob Dole bested then-Vice President George H.W. Bush for the same reason. Neither candidate generated real passion, but the man with the best organization won again.

We’ll see on Jan. 3 whether Mr. Gingrich’s strategy works and whether the world indeed has really changed. Most polls show Mr. Gingrich ahead in Iowa right now, with Mr. Romney and Ron Paul as his only real competition. Mr. Romney has the remnants of his 2008 organization and a core of supporters who will turn out for him, but the best-organized candidate in Iowa is Mr. Paul. He also has an energized base that will enable him to exceed his poll numbers on caucus night.

If Mr. Gingrich is wrong and Mr. Romney is stuck with what he has, the winner on Jan. 3 could be the iconoclastic Mr. Paul. That would hurt Mr. Gingrich and help Mr. Romney, who is well-organized and has a real base in New Hampshire. If Mr. Gingrich is right and wins Iowa, he’ll be on a roll that could threaten Mr. Romney in New Hampshire and trump his organizational and financial depth there and beyond.

It is interesting, though, that even as Mr. Gingrich holds publicly to the view that his oratorical skills will catapult him to victory in Iowa and beyond, he’s hedging his bets in New Hampshire by hiring anyone and everyone he can find to cobble together an organization to compete with Mr. Romney on the ground.

Maybe he’s not as certain the world has changed after all.

David A. Keene, former chairman of the American Conservative Union (ACU), is a member of the board of the ACU, the National Rifle Association, the Constitution Project and the Center for the National Interest.