In 2008, Barack Obama ran what was in some ways a revolutionary campaign. He took advantage of the possibilities of social media more than any candidate before him, allowing supporters to connect with each other without (too much) involvement or guidance from the campaign itself. They could design their own signs, set up their own meetings, figure out how to connect with the people they knew on their own. As a result, Obama volunteers felt a sense of ownership over the campaign in a way volunteers seldom do, leading them to work all the harder.
But as far as I remember, Obama didn't go around saying, "This campaign is revolutionary" all that often. He may have talked about the campaign in lofty, poetic terms as something unique, but he didn't spend too much time talking about how special the campaign was specifically as an organizational effort. In fact, when a candidate starts saying how unique his campaign is, it's usually because he's failing at the traditional measures by which campaign success is judged. Not raising any money? My campaign is so unusual, we don't even need money. Don't have any high-profile endorsements? That's because this is such a unique effort, the establishment doesn't understand it.
Nobody made this case with more style than Newt Gingrich, whose campaign is so outside-the-box, it is now operating without any staff or apparent attempt to get people to vote for him. Jon Fasman* gives us a good look back at the specialness that was the Gingrich campaign:
To Mr Gingrich, getting online donations was nothing short of earth-shattering. As Politico reported, Mr Gingrich "boasted that he was inventing a revolutionary new model of campaigning" by asking for money online. "I told somebody at one point, 'This is like watching Walton or Kroc develop Walmart and McDonald's.'" The real problem was not that he was a profoundly unserious and undisciplined candidate; the problem, as he was only too happy to explain, was that, "Because I am much like Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, I'm such an unconventional political figure that you really need to design a unique campaign that fits the way I operate and what I'm trying to do."
As Fasman says, "Newt Gingrich does not eat sandwiches; he fundamentally transforms them, radically changing them from solid foodstuff to masticated bolus to energy." Now obviously, it was Gingrich's particular repellence that led voters to reject him, no matter how radically, transformatively, fundamentally he would reimagine everything we think we know about the world. But even in these unusual times, it's worth acknowledging that the guy who ended up on top of the Republican race was the guy who ran the most traditional campaign (notwithstanding the super PAC help he got, which was significant). He spent lots of time rounding up endorsements from both national and local party officials. He raised a lot of money. He built up a sizeable staff to organize on the ground. He ran lots of TV ads.
In short, the Romney campaign to this point has been aggressively traditional. Nothing transformative, or radical, or unconventional. And he's the one who won.
*CORRECTION: An earlier edition of this post attributed this quote to Will Wilkinson. The quotation was written by Jon Fasman.
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