When Howard Dean became a surprise front-runner in the Democrat primary of 2004 — doing so on the basis of a strong internet-based campaign effort — tongues began to wag that the internet might replace old-fashioned politics. Dean’s campaign manager, Joe Trippi, became an instant celebrity because of this newfangled web and blog campaign effort. This time 'round in the 2012 campaign, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich served to get people to again question the old way of organizing a campaign by eschewing a focus on state organizations and instead appealing to TV and internet-based audiences.
However, the results in Virginia might prove that these airy claims of the internet's new dominance are a bit chimerical. With only two of the seven GOP candidates initially making the primary ballot in Virginia, we see that old-fashioned ideas of boots on the ground, or retail politics — the process of creating state-based organizations where a candidate prioritizes personal connections with voters — is still the best way to succeed.
Let’s take Texas Governor Rick Perry for example. He is still assumed to be a strong candidate in the 2012 GOP primary race. Yet as the time came to file his petitions in Virginia, it turned out his campaign did not collect enough to get his name on the ballot. As such, a reputed front-running candidate for the nomination did not meet requirements to appear on the Virginia primary ballot because he just didn’t have the local organization to flood the state with campaign workers who could gather signatures.
Perry isn't the only one. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Jon Huntsman, and Rick Santorum did not have the local organization in Virginia to gather enough signatures to make the ballot. It was initially thought Newt Gingrich had just enough to make it, but it ended up that he didn’t. Only Ron Paul and Mitt Romney met the requirements.
It should also be noted that Virginia isn’t the only place some of these candidates failed to make the primary ballot.
So, what happened here? Firstly, all the candidates but Paul and Romney have been relying on internet-based video ads, radio talkers, and the televised debates to get their word out. Mostly it’s because they simply haven’t had the cash on hand to build large state organizations. But at least in Gingrich’s case, he specifically said at the outset that he’d have a "different kind of campaign."
Yet in Virginia it came down to retail politics. Both Romney and Paul had organizations with enough people right there in Virginia to pass around their candidate's petitions and gather the requisite number of signatures. The others simply did not have the campaign staff or enough individual workers ready to hit the streets for them to get those signatures. This is mirrored in other states where some of the second tier candidates are struggling to build state-based campaign organizations to get their names on the ballots.
Only two candidates have had a good ground game. Romney, who spent the last four years creating his organization, and Paul, whose absurdly young army of acolytes will do anything for him – an organization Paul spent six years assembling — and they both succeeded in getting on the ballot.
Clearly, expecting to get their message out solely via the internet and other means hasn't been enough for the lower caucus, in which all but Santorum, Romney, and Paul faltered. In comparison, Bachmann, Huntsman and Gingrich lacked the resources to build a state-wide ground game. Only Paul and Romney had that capability. It's been the old fashioned game of retail politics that made the difference for them.
Fair or not, until there is some major change in our primary system, the ground game will make all the difference.
Photo Credit: Barack Obama