The GOP primary next month may not feature the classic campaign conflict of momentum versus organisation – indeed, it could well descend into a case of inertia versus disorganisation.
Organisation and momentum are not mutually exclusive, of course; in tandem, they are incredibly powerful (witness Obama 2008). Some campaigns never have much of either (wave hello, Gary Johnson). Karl Rove’s exhortation that momentum trumps organisation (recently and appropriately invoked on Liberal Conspiracy) has tended to hold true in Iowa: in 2008, Mitt Romney’s massive organisation was defeated by a surging Mike Huckabee. In the absence of a candidate with great momentum, organisation carries the day – John Kerry’s victory of organisation in 2004 may have looked like a triumph over Howard Dean’s momentum, but in fact Dean was losing steam as early as November 2003.
At the moment, New Gingrich appears to have momentum on his side; he’s surged to a national lead and is flavour of the month with the political media. New polling suggests that his edge in Iowa might be starting to slip, however, which would be right on schedule in a cycle where GOP voters have fallen head-over-heels in love with several alternatives to Romney only to fall right back out with them after a month or so. Gingrich has very little organisation on which to fall back, having just opened his Iowa office last month.
The same is true of Romney. It has long been received wisdom that Romney can’t win in Iowa, and his campaign at one point elected to ignore it completely. They reversed that decision last month, opening a single office.
In fact, no GOP candidate is making a major organisational commitment to Iowa. A key standard of an aggressive Iowa organisation is to have a designated campaign chair and volunteer structure in all 99 counties, often before the start of December. With three weeks on the clock, no campaign has met this standard, and it is not clear if any will.
In theory, this would still leave Romney with an advantage; if no campaign has made a greater commitment to organising than any other, then the campaign that has a list of identified supporters from a previous cycle has the edge. This will probably have some effect, and could be decisive in Romney’s favour were he not permanently stuck at #3 or lower in the Iowa polls.
If Gingrich’s momentum really is flagging, he will certainly rue the months of organising time lost when his campaign all but imploded earlier this year in a staff exodus. The winner in all this appears to be Ron Paul, whose Iowa machine has not been huge but has certainly been persistent; he’s a solid second place in the polls at the moment, and is best positioned to pick up any voters Gingrich sheds en route to a silver medal (or worse) finish.
Such a scenario would be, oddly enough, to Romney’s advantage. Gingrich needs to put Romney down hard during the first four primaries (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida); he does not have the money, organisation, or – critically – the discipline for a long slugging match. A pair of losses in Iowa and New Hampshire after soaring to a big lead would feed the storyline of Gingrich as another GOP primary flash-in-the-pan, undercutting his momentum still further.
It’s hardly over for Gingrich, of course; his momentum may yet hold, and a win (particularly a sizeable win) would position him nicely for South Carolina and Florida. Momentum is a harder thing to control than organisation, though – in many respects it’s more a bet than it is an investment. Gingrich has always been a betting man; his wins have made him rich; his losses have cost him very, very dearly.
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