It was January 16, 2012, and Newt was speaking at a breakfast event in Myrtle Beach.
After fourth and fifth place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire respectively, the South Carolina primary was just five days away. And while Newt was on stage, a new round of polls came out – all showing us trailing Governor Romney by ten points. A sinking feeling came over the staff as we realized it was getting too late to turn things around.
It was particularly disappointing because since October of 2011, we’d built the largest organization in the state. With 13 full-time staff, five field offices and county chairs in all 46 counties, our footprint was massive — but we still had a hard time getting volunteers motivated to make phone calls. Our moment had seemingly come and gone.
But with two raucous debates, the race completely flipped on its head.
In a matter of days, we had gained 23 points and by the night of the primary, we won with 40 percent of the vote, winning 43 of 46 counties and nearly every single demographic.
The ballroom we had originally booked for our “victory party” to accommodate 350 people was completely overrun, as we received over 100 RSVPs from just the media alone. It was an incredible turn of events and we’ll be forever grateful to the good people of South Carolina.
As the six remaining candidates prepare for the next South Carolina primary on Saturday, there are a few lessons they ought to think about.
First, primaries can change on a dime. Unlike in a general election where the party-faithful stay within their respective camps, primary voters are always shopping. Singular moments matter, whether they are debates or news events. Take for instance the terror attacks in Paris or the tragic and untimely death of Justice Scalia. Four years later, with the further emergence of new media and the birth of “viral politics” that social media brings, this notion is magnified even further. Mistakes and political sound bites can be even more crucial or deadly to a primary campaign in the last few days. How candidates adapt to the dance is important, and it’s a reminder of how prepared and knowledgeable voters expect candidates to be on a wide range of issues — and rightly so.
Second, the ground game and the national media narrative are equally important and good campaigns are able to handle both. While our ground game would never have been able to wipe out a ten-point deficit on its own, it did allow us to catch the wave when the wave came. Voters knew we were down but not out, because we were visible throughout the entire state.
Third, Republican primary voters in South Carolina appreciate fighters, but they also appreciate substance and a candidate willing to listen and treat them like adults. While the press always concentrates on the retail politics nature of Iowa and New Hampshire, it’s just as important in South Carolina. People take their early-voting responsibility very seriously and are extremely well informed. While the debates clearly sealed our victory, Newt also spent a large amount of time in the state holding town hall meetings, answering voters’ questions and visiting rural and heavily African-American areas that aren’t necessarily used to seeing Republican presidential candidates, such as Fairfield and Orangeburg counties.
In the end, the 2012 South Carolina primary was an incredible lesson in the dynamism of the American people and our political system overall.
The only constant is change, and the only thing predictable is unpredictability, and that rings even truer this year.
As we get closer to the 2016 primary on February 20th, I hope that each candidate makes the time to listen and learn from the good people of South Carolina as they interview for the opportunity to lead America for the next four to eight years.
Adam Waldeck is a Republican strategist and former Newt Gingrich staffer from 2007 to 2012. He served as the South Carolina State Director for Newt 2012.