COLUMBIA, SC — When you watch the homestretch to the South Carolina primary, you’re really watching the latest round of a fight between old campaigning and new.
Mitt Romney and his allies are spending a fortune to win here, and the current polls show he’s pulling it off. But ask around among the political professionals here in the state’s capital and you’ll hear the same thing over and over: Romney’s headed to victory without the robust, retail-style campaigning past winners have relied on.
And that could make the next few days more exciting than you might think.
It’s not that Romney doesn’t have a ground game — it’s that his is smaller than those of campaigns past, observers say. He just signed up two important ground staffers here two weeks ago and he hasn’t made the number of visits he made in 2008, when he blitzed the state. And yet those who know say Romney’s looking good to win.
Why? There are two factors at play here: the changing nature of campaigning in the 2012 cycle and Romney’s good luck of having a bunch of fellow candidates still battling it out amongst themselves to be his chief rival.
If Romney does win the state, it could also shore up the sense among political operatives that the traditional primaries ground game is no longer as critical as it once was.
“It is much smaller,” Wesley Donehue, a well-known South Carolina operative, Michele Bachmann’s former coordinator here and a member of Romney’s 2008 team told me when I asked him to compare Romney’s ground operation to past Palmetto frontrunners.
He downplayed the significance of Romney’s smaller operation. “Ground games are becoming less important as marketing techniques change with the Internet and growing national media trends,” he said.
Out in the counties, where the votes will actually be won or lost, there’s a different view. Kevin Thomas is the chair of the Fairfield County Republican Party, representing a county just to the north of Columbia in South Carolina’s midlands region he characterizes as conservative Democrat. He said the lack of Romney’s ground operation has been felt.
“To be honest, I’m really disappointed,” Thomas, who is neutral in the primary contest, told me. He said he’s been able to connect with representatives from the Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum campaigns, but dealing with Romney’s operation in the most trivial of ways has been tough.
“I tried to get some signs, couldn’t get that,” he said. “I don’t know what they’re doing.”
Newt Gingrich has courted the tea party, and touted his operation in South Carolina for a while now. He’s also got the backing of millions in Super PAC advertising giving him a boost in the Palmetto State, where polls show Gingrich is holding his own. On the stump, Gingrich talks up his southern conservative credentials, and it’s clear he thinks he knows how to campaign there.
Rick Santorum on the other hand is more firmly from the old school. Observers who tout the importance of retail campaigning in South Carolina say Santorum is doing what needs to be done — he’s been on the ground more than almost any other candidate, and has built up a strong ground operation.
“I think Santorum’s going to surprise,” state GOP chair Chad Connelly told me Tuesday. Thomas said Santorum’s got the edge when it comes to the retail politics. But polls show that hasn’t done much for him — his support is actually declining.
Romney, meanwhile is doing things “the new way,” Thomas said — relying on ads and the internet to get his vote out. The Romney campaign did not respond to a request for comment on their South Carolina operation.
Thomas said this is fixing to be a grand experiment on which campaign style works: the grassroots traditional style of a Santorum or the shiny new operation of Romney.
“You’ve got two contrasting styles, and you’ll see which one works,” he said.
It’s worth noting at this point that Romney is far from absent. He’s in the state doing multiple events this week, and he’s got the endorsement of South Carolina’s governor, the tea party-friendly Nikki Haley. Like any statewide elected official, she brings her own network to the table which presumably Romney is leveraging. But over and over and over I heard that Romney is not playing the ground game the way past winners have — and therein lies the chance that he could get upset.
Diane Carr is the vice chair of the York County GOP, located up near the North Carolina border. This is conservative country, and not a place where Romney is expected to do well. But she noted the lack of Team Romney on the ground and said the current frontrunner is relying on more advanced methods to pull his vote out. She said Romney is passing out call lists via the internet to supporters who can then turnaround and work virtual phone banks without the need of a lot of expensive real estate. She seemed pretty confident that Romney’s got things well in hand, but the balked at the idea that there’s a new way to win South Carolina.
“I don’t think this election is different from any others,” she said. “You’ve got to have a ground game and a get out the vote organization to get your voters out. Otherwise you’re not going to come out very well.”
But back in Columbia, Donehue said Romney doesn’t need the ground game because he’s got deep pockets.
“You need money or manpower,” he said. “[Romney] has enough money to make up for the manpower.”
On Jan. 21, we’ll see who’s right.