Reagan-era conservatives must have felt as if they’d been here before late last week as news broke that Newt Gingrich’s campaign had failed to gather enough signatures to get his name on the Virginia primary ballot. Virginia law requires presidential wannabes to deliver 10,000 signatures on petitions that include at least 400 signers from each of 11 congressional districts.
In the spring of 1976, Ronald Reagan was in hot pursuit of the delegates needed to unhorse President Ford for that year’s GOP presidential nomination. The Reagan campaign had begun amid high hopes. The former California governor started with the funds needed for a first-class launch, the incumbent president was in real trouble within his party, and Reagan fully expected to beat him in New Hampshire and beyond.
It didn’t happen that way because Reagan stumbled in New Hampshire, lost Florida and was on the ropes by the time his campaign reached Illinois. The funds had dried up, his staff was trying not very successfully to live off the land, United Airlines took away his charter in the snows of Wisconsin, and his managers were contemplating urging him to strike his colors, endorse Ford and head home.
But Reagan then, like Mr. Gingrich this year, didn’t know when to quit. He fought on, delivered a blockbuster televised speech that began to bring in money and fought his way back into contention to the amazement of the media and his friends as well as his critics. Reagan lost the nomination in Kansas City that summer by a mere handful of votes but regrouped and came back to win the nomination and the presidency four years later.
As the dust cleared after Kansas City, critics put part of the blame for Reagan’s ultimate defeat on the campaign’s failure to meet some of the filing deadlines in key states and to the little things that haunt campaigns that almost make it. Internal and external critics of Reagan’s managers in 1976 focused on their failure to file complete slates in states such as Ohio, where his campaign had failed even to file in one-third of the state’s 23 congressional districts.
In many ways, the Gingrich campaign’s failure in Virginia today looms as more serious than Reagan’s Ohio fiasco. Reagan could have used some of those delegates but wasn’t expected to win Ohio anyway, and its primary came late in the process. The news as Ohio was voting that year was not about the Midwest, but California’s massive winner-take-all primary. The costs of the Ohio failure became obvious later, when delegates to Kansas City were almost evenly divided between Reagan and Ford.
This year, Mr. Gingrich actually was leading in Virginia, had plenty of volunteers in the state and was counting on victories in Virginia and the other Southern states that will be holding primaries on March 6. Having lost the lead he enjoyed over his rivals in Iowa and facing a strong Romney ground army in New Hampshire, Mr. Gingrich is hoping South Carolina and Southern primaries that follow will do for him what Reagan’s North Carolina victory did to revitalize the Gipper’s floundering 1976 effort.
The problem for Mr. Gingrich is that the failure to qualify for the ballot in Virginia could hurt him even before March. Activists in South Carolina and Florida looking for a viable candidate to get behind may look elsewhere, and a candidate already being attacked by critics as unable to run or manage anything could suffer real damage from such a failure.
For his part, Mr. Gingrich has been on the attack, calling the Virginia law unfair. His spokesman describes the Virginia requirements as “a failed system” and says, “Voters deserve the right to vote for any top contender, especially leading candidates.” That may be, but Mr. Gingrich and the rest knew the rules going in. His campaign collected about 11,000 signatures, but anyone who has ever been involved in Virginia or anywhere else knows that a 10 percent cushion isn’t enough because those not qualified to sign such petitions by virtue of residency or registration rules are dropped before the final count.
I was part of that 1976 Reagan effort, and as various states were changing the rules, Reagan’s manager, John Sears - who was one of the most brilliant political strategists of his generation - was asked what rules he thought ought to prevail. He replied that while he might have his preferences, all he asked was that the rules be clear so that everyone knew them and could get on with the “game.”
Virginia’s rules, onerous as they might be, are clear enough. Mr. Gingrich and the other presidential candidates who failed to qualify for the Virginia ballot knew the rules well in advance but for one reason or another didn’t take Mr. Sears’ advice.
That could prove a costly mistake.
David A. Keene is the former chairman of the American Conservative Union and a member of the board of the ACU, the National Rifle Association, the Constitution Project and the Center for the National Interest.