When the Des Moines Register listed the hurdles which could trip up Newt Gingrich's surging candidacy, it identified his weak campaign organization as his first vulnerability:
Gingrich’s relative lack of organization handicaps him. He didn’t open an Iowa headquarters until last weekend, just 34 days before the caucuses. (Organizing took a long hiatus after his entire Iowa staff quit in early June, citing the candidate’s lackadaisical fundraising and campaigning.)
The late start has revealed itself in a spate of growing pains and errors in recent days.
This might help explain why he's losing a lead he held in Iowa for the last few weeks, and it’s not the only news story which has noted this problem with his campaign. Reportedly, he is having similar problems in Virginia and his campaign may be facing a similar problem in South Carolina.
A recent squabble between supporters of Gingrich and Michele Bachmann over accusations that Gingrich's campaign was seeking to buy the Tea Party vote resulted in a Jerry Springer-esque catfight of accusations and finger-pointing which left veteran politicos that we talked with shaking their heads at how easily a front-runner campaign could be sidetracked (we've been amazed at the number of emails and phone calls we've received in the last week). As few associated with either campaign in the state have any serious campaign experience, mostly activists with experience of speaking to Tea Party groups, maybe this strange turn of events isn't so surprising.
Early on, Bachmann campaign brought on Sheri Few, a well-known social conservative activist and perennial candidate for a Columbia-area State House seat and Cyndi Mosteller, a supposed social conservative recently noted for being one of the leaders of a shadowy group which has opposed Nikki Haley (but later made of the smartest hires in the cycle by picking up Wesley Donehue, a key player in SC politics with a growing national presence). The Gingrich campaign hired a number of Tea Party activists, including DeLinda Ridings, who earlier in the cycle had worked for Mike Huckabee and Jon Huntsman, and Gerri McDaniel, a former Perry supporter known for being an abrasive leader of the Myrtle Beach Tea Party and a relative newcomer to politics whose stacked-deck plan delivered her group's endorsement of Gingrich, forcing them to pick from just Gingrich and Herman Cain (a role which McDaniel denied).
While the Bachmann campaign has little to lose, given their low standing in polling, the Gingrich campaign can’t afford to stumble if they want to keep their momentum. They might have done well to vet the people they were going to hire better, but this was a problem in Iowa as well, where their first Iowa political director was forced out following religious attacks on Mitt Romney.
In South Carolina, history has shown the Presidential primary campaign with best organization and resources wins. Without it, you can't capitalize on momentum by identifying and mobilizing your supporters and targeting persuadable voters. With a large field running in this state, it's possible that the winner could lead by just several percentage points, making it crucial for candidates to squeeze out every vote possible in next month's primary – something you don’t accomplish by trading accusations and letters to the editor about a campaign’s hidden agenda.
When South Carolina's GOP leaders created the state's primary in 1980, including future Governor Carroll Campbell and Lee Atwater, who would later become RNC Chair, they already had their candidate picked - Ronald Reagan - thus setting up a no-lose scenario. Eight years later, the Campbell and Atwater network combined their control of the ground with a robust paid media campaign to make South Carolina a key turning point in George H.W. Bush's campaign, quickly forcing most candidates out of the race.
The 2000 primary was as much a battle between Bush and McCain as it was a battle between the state's then two largest political kingmakers: Warren Tompkins, who was tied to the old Campbell machine, and Richard Quinn, who was linked with long-time GOP operative Trey Walker and the McMaster family (which includes for SCGOP Chair and Attorney General Henry McMaster). Both campaigns were flush with cash and organization, while several other candidates with not much of either were quickly marginalized as Bush and McCain fought a bloody race that resulted in a close victory for Bush.
While Gingrich may have the lead today, other campaigns are working hard get their messages out as well. Rick Perry has recruited a large team, including Starboard Communications (most recently noted for their roles in the Nikki Haley and Mick Mulvaney campaigns), and has made plans to engage in an aggressive ground and air war in state in an effort to recover lost ground. Romney’s continued second and third place finishes in polling, which has persisted in spite of spending little money in the state, could easily improve with modest investment of time and staff, as well as capitalizing on high-profile endorsements by Governor Nikki Haley and Treasurer Curtis Loftis.
Other campaigns are attempting to get by as best as they can, undeterred by small organizations or the lack of financial resources. But those campaigns aren't handicapped by high profile instances of their supporters going rogue on those supporting other campaigns or, in some cases, those who are uncommitted to any candidate. This is important as those campaigns which aren't trying to regain lost ground have opportunities to gain it.
The recent miscues and lack of seasoned leadership in Gingrich’s South Carolina campaign operations could present a credible threat to his ability to sustain the momentum he’s shown in recent weeks. Since polling has indicated most likely primary voters are either uncommitted or still open to other candidates, other campaigns are working hard to win those voters over. If Gingrich’s campaign fails to bring the stability and focus needed to finish strong, he wouldn’t be the first early front-runner who who lost South Carolina's all-important "First in the South" primary.