Riding a Surge, Can Gingrich Avoid a Wipeout?

Newt Gingrich suddenly has become the frontrunner in Iowa. The question is: can he win the Iowa caucuses without a strong Iowa organization?

Surfing a wave of support from 25 percent of likely Iowa Republican caucus-goers, Newt Gingrich, thought to be dead in the water in June, is riding high in Iowa. 

The question is: Can he ride that wave all the way through to win the caucuses?

Or is his lack of ground game -- an organization to turn out supporters on caucus night -- a wipeout waiting to happen?

Gingrich leads his nearest competitor, Ron Paul, by seven points according to the Iowa Poll published by The Des Moines Register.

Can He Win Without Ground Game?

The conventional wisdom among Iowa political experts who know the caucuses is that organization is critical to doing well, even today with all the social media tools candidates are using.

"Poll numbers are one thing and getting people to turn out and vote on caucus night is another," said Iowa State University professor Steffen Schmidt. "Gingrich needs to make sure he has one person in each of the 1,784 caucus precincts. So does every other candidate."

Is New Gingrich the best Republican candidate for Iowa? Let us know in the comment section. And, don't forget, Patch will have live coverage of the results on Jan. 3 as they come in.

Until last week when Gingrich was in Des Moines for the day and spoke that evening at the Polk County Republican Dinner in Johnston, Gingrich didn't even have an office in Iowa.

He hadn't had a staff here since his paid staff quit in June, apparently upset about his lack of fundraising and his decision to take a private jet to multiple campaign events.

Since then, his campaign's hired six paid staffers and former staffer Craig Schoenfeld is back as a volunteer.

Trying to get Gingrich's headquarters in Urbandale up and running last week, despite a , Schoenfeld acknowledged the campaign won't be able to put together a strong organization in a month. 

A New Caucus Model?

And some politicos question whether the old model is necessary. In an ABC News blog, some Gingrich supporters noted that none of the candidates, except for Rick Santorum, have the kind of organization in all 99 counties that candidates have won with in the past.

And Santorum continues to trail in the latest Iowa Poll with support from only 7 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers.

Schmidt disagrees: "You need one precinct contact to offer to drive and escort elderly voters to the caucus meeting especially if it's cold, snowing, windy and dark – it will be all of those on January 3. "If (Gingrich) has none of that maybe other better organized campaigns will provide that service."

Gingrich isn't just starting from behind in the ground game, he's starting from nothing.

Schoenfeld acknowledged that there was no one other than volunteers working on his campaign from June until the end of November.

Gov. Terry Branstad told Politico that in the most unsettled caucus he's witnessed, Paul has the strongest organization in the state, but Gingrich possibly could win the caucus. Even with a weak state organization, Branstad said Gingrich has a shot if if he performs well in the next two debates going into the caucuses and depending on how well he handles being the frontrunner.

Now that he is the frontrunner, not only in the Iowa Poll but in other national polls, other candidates and political action committees will step up their attacks on him. Paul has released a video attacking Gingrich for what he calls "serial hypocrisy."

Does He Need to Win?

"The old line is, 'There are three tickets out of Iowa, so you need to finish in the top three,'" said Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford.

"All the caucus does, specifically on the Republican side, is it sends a signal about their relative strengths and weaknesses," he said."You want bragging rights, you want to say you did better than expected." 

A lot can change in the last month before the caucuses, he said, but with Gingrich becoming distinctively the frontrunner, he'll have to perform very well to get those bragging rights.

Doug Gross, a former GOP candidate for governor who has not committed to any candidate, said Gingrich now needs to finish in the top two spots to get a boost out of Iowa.

That's where Chris Snider, a journalism professor at Drake University, puts Gingrich in his latest analysis.

Snider has been studying how the candidates were faring on social media. Three weeks ago, he looked at 17 different measures of popularity and engagement on Twitter and Facebook.

Like national polls, Herman Cain, Gingrich and Mitt Romney were first, second and third, respectively in rankings for social media popularity.

He ran the numbers again this week without Cain: Gingrich first, Romney second, and Bachmann third, with Paul moving up strongly in fourth.

The question will be whether Facebook users "like" Gingrich enough to brave an Iowa January night to caucus for him.


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