Monday, June 20, 2011

Newt Gingrich's Challenge: Win the Debates

Last month, we took a look at how well Tim Pawlenty is employing his campaign strategy so far. Today, we will examine Newt Gingrich. Each candidate's optimal strategy is outlined on the Profiles page. For an analysis of each candidate's position based on that strategy, check the Rankings page.

Even before he entered the race, Gingrich had a lot of obstacles in his path to winning the nomination. He is seen by many as a man of the past. His efforts to reinvent himself by embracing the climate change issue alienated many conservatives. His history of adultery alienated others. And there isn't an early primary state that's exactly tailor-made for him. In fact, Gingrich's campaign doesn't seem to be sure whether he should place all of his chips on Iowa or on New Hampshire.

After getting into the race, Gingrich suffered from gaffes during a major interview, attempted to backpedal, went on vacation, and lost nearly his entire campaign staff to a mass resignation. The conventional wisdom is that Gingrich's campaign is DOA: Dead On Arrival. This view is reflected by his odds on Intrade. It's also reflected in both state primary polling and national primary polling, where he trails candidates with equal or lesser name recognition.

What can Gingrich do? He needs to win the debates.

Gingrich's one advantage is that he is more comfortable and well-trained in a televised debate setting than any other candidate. He showed this during the June 13th debate, even though it took place just days after his campaign staff quit and he was written off in the media.

The good news is that there will be about a dozen more primary debates before the Iowa Caucus. The bad news is that even if Gingrich gave the best debate performance of all the candidates each time, it would still not be enough. There are simply too many headwinds against Gingrich, and too many candidates sharing the stage. Even if Gingrich gave the best answers, other candidates would probably give pretty good answers, too.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Gingrich needs to use the debates as an opportunity to go on the offensive. He must criticize his opponents, challenge them, and engage them in one-on-one confrontations during the debates. The debate formats usually aren't designed for this, especially in the early debates with many candidates, but debate moderators often allow it to take place anyway. They know it gets ratings.

Gingrich will need to put his faith entirely in his debating skills. The only way for him to win is for voters to think, "I like [Candidate X], but every time he got into an argument with Gingrich, Gingrich won."

It would be risky and a bit unorthodox. As we pointed out after the June 13th debate, early debates are civil, because there are risks associated with attacking other candidates. For Gingrich, however, the odds are stacked against him so heavily that it's more risky to take a traditional course. And there is no prize for second place. He must push all his chips into the middle of the table and hope for the best.