Newt Gingrich on Going Negative in the GOP Primaries

The former presidential candidate on his decision to relinquish the moral high ground during the heated Republican primaries
Illustration by Jimmy Turrell

Last August, I was down to 3 percent in the Gallup polls. June and July had been the two hardest months of my career. We should have skipped the entire phase of working with consultants who didn’t believe in what I was doing. The way they quit and the news media announced my campaign was over meant I was literally in a desert. I was lucky to raise $3,000 on a day when I should have raised $50,000. When the Republican debates began to kick in, we went through Pawlenty, Bachmann, Cain’s first surge, Trump’s near surge, Perry’s surge, and Cain’s second surge. By December, I was the front-runner. It was everything I hoped for.

Then, frankly, the Romney people did the only thing they could. They used their strengths—which were money and the super PAC and a willingness to go after me very aggressively—to offset my strength, which was an ability to define a larger, better future. I was probably naive in forgetting that your opponents have every right to try to clutter your message. We deliberately stayed largely positive in Iowa. We dropped 22 points, from 36 to 14. I said to our guys, “Look, if we can’t find a way to offset these negative attacks, we’re not going to win.” In the end we decided we had to match the negativity, which I look back on as very unfortunate. We went to New Hampshire and campaigned there to set up South Carolina, where we beat Mitt by a historic margin. When we got to Florida, the Romney people felt they’d have to throw the kitchen sink at me or they’d lose, so they did. I responded, but they had a lot bigger kitchen sink than I had.

What that did was create a vacuum for Santorum, who couldn’t break through either. The fact was, Romney built a bigger system that executed well enough to win. You have to have some grudging respect for that. Of course, I would have preferred a different outcome and a different style on their part. But they were also faced with the objective reality that if they had been a lot softer, I might have become the nominee. It’s not bad to say [Romney] has proven he will do what it takes to beat Obama. It’s the nature of our current political culture that cynicism trumps idealism. With Obama, though, you just need a clear message of contrast. You make the choice very big. — As told to Diane Brady 

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