Newt Gingrich’s fall in Iowa has been attributed to many factors, ranging from attack ads to poor organization. But Gingrich also made a critical mistake that most losing politicians do: his campaign was focused on the past. From his promise to be the “Reagan Republican” to his 21st Century Contract with America, Gingrich kept asking people to vote for a return to the past. But voters want the next great American leader. And that’s what a successful campaign and candidate must be.
For years, Republicans have tried to win campaigns by comparing themselves to Ronald Reagan. They air TV ads with images of Reagan, promise to follow his policies and constantly compare themselves to him. As Gingrich started to fade in Iowa, he fell into this trap and started playing up his connections to Reagan.
Just days before the caucus, Gingrich ran a Wall Street Journal op-ed promising to follow Reagan’s economic policies. He also rolled out an endorsement from Michael Reagan, who promised Newt would continue his father’s legacy. Even after placing fourth in Iowa, Gingrich kept up this strategy, declaring himself a “Reagan conservative” and Mitt Romney a “Massachusetts moderate.”
These explicit comparisons to Reagan are unnecessary. Voters can put two and two together. If voters liked Reagan’s policies, and you have the same policies, they’ll also like yours.
Furthermore, Republican candidates actually harm themselves by making comparisons to Reagan. No modern-day politician has Reagan’s charisma, humor, presence or background; quite simply, none of them is or ever will be Ronald Reagan. And when candidates compare themselves to Reagan, they remind voters how much they pale in comparison to the Great Communicator.
Reagan was a president of the 1980s. He didn’t run and govern on a philosophy of returning to the past. Although many of his policies weren’t new, he always looked forward. He talked about making the 1980s the best decade America had ever seen. He campaigned and governed on the promise of leading America to a brighter future, not returning to a previous era.
There’s a reason the Reagan campaign didn’t say “it’s 1950 again in American.” By declaring “it’s morning again in America,” Reagan was establishing himself as the leader of a new age that would surpass any previous era in American history. This is what inspired Americans. And this is what people want to vote for: a candidate who makes them believe the best is yet to come.
Barack Obama didn’t win in 2008 by promising to return to the age of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. He may have alluded to these men, but his campaign was focused on Barack Obama as the next great American leader. And that’s what a successful candidate must do.
Gingrich also spent too much time talking about his achievements as speaker instead of his presidential platform and initiatives. While the balanced budgets of the 1990s are commendable, America’s financial situation has changed drastically over the past 20 years. Just saying that you can balance the budget because you did it in the past isn’t enough (not to mention that Bill Clinton presided over those balanced budgets).
Some might argue that Gingrich had to emphasize the past since his record as speaker was his strongest qualification. Maybe. But by naming his presidential platform the “21st Century Contract with America,” his campaign reeked of a return to the past. Americans don’t want a return to the 1990s. And they certainly don’t want to do it with a politician who wasn’t even popular during the heyday of that decade.
Gingrich has vowed to continue his campaign. But unless he changes his strategy, he’s unlikely to gain traction. The eventual nominee and all future politicians would do well to learn from this example: a campaign rooted in the past is a campaign destined to fail.
David Meyers served in the White House from 2006 to 2009, and later in the United States Senate. He is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.