With former Gov. Mitt Romney widely expected to win the Florida primary, the remaining candidates are beginning to show their hands for what they will do in the coming weeks of the campaign.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum, back on the campaign trail, is visiting states that will hold contests early next month—Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, and Nevada—while moving toward the March 6 "Super Tuesday" contests. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich campaign is taking a different approach, saying he is in for the long haul. In a memo leaked to reporters, Gingrich political director outlines how the campaign will rely on the proportionality of the February contests to keep Gingrich's delegate count alive in an effort to keep Gingrich's candidacy alive through to the Republican National Convention in Tampa. And Rep. Ron Paul will continue to keep on trucking, as he always has.
It's smart thinking, and perhaps necessary thinking, but the Gingrich and Santorum strategies forget the single most important and most obvious thing in winning elections that often goes unnoticed until it's too late: the ballot.
While the Gingrich and Santorum campaigns were presumably preparing for debate after debate, the Romney and Paul campaigns had the organization and infrastructure not just to walk, but to chew gum while doing so; meaning, they were focused on putting together a complete campaign instead on one dependent only on momentum.
In Missouri, Newt Gingrich did not file paperwork in time to appear on the ballot in that state's non-binding primary. After the fact, Gingrich said he did not want to compete in what is essentially a straw poll. In other words, "You can't fire me because I quit." Which is all fine and well, except that states and state parties generally have long memories when it comes to being snubbed.
On "Super Tuesday," March 6, when Republicans in ten states go to the polls, both Gingrich and Santorum will be hampered by their campaigns' inability to qualify in key states. In Tennessee, neither Gingrich nor Santorum qualified for the full slate of delegates. In Ohio, where early voting has already begun, Santorum again failed to qualify for the full slate of delegates and has little organization. And in Virginia, neither Gingrich nor Santorum will be on ballots in their home state.
Virginia, with the toughest ballot access requirements in the nation, proved a stumbling block for every campaign (including Rep. Michele Bachmann's, Herman Cain's, and Gov. Rick Perry's) but two—Romney and Paul. But while those requirements were indeed steep, all the candidates played by the rules until those rules did not favor them—a little bit like blaming the referees after a loss.
Implicit in such criticism, however, is the acknowledgement that your team lost. But more than that, failing to get on the ballot in Virginia, or not qualifying for a full slate in other states, also acknowledges a weak organization, one that not only fails on the basics of ballot access, but also is less equipped to make direct voter contact in those states where the candidate is on the ballot. In addition, it means that the "make-or-break" Super Tuesday is more likely to be "break" for those campaigns.
Perhaps the one constant in this campaign has been the ability of the debates to instantly change the narrative of the race—whether positive, as Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich, and Romney have all demonstrated, or negative, in the case of Rick Perry.
And while those moments have driven a great deal of the conversation and excitement in the race, it may ultimately be decided on the good old-fashioned politics best employed by the Romney campaign: organizing early, raising money, contacting voters, and getting on the ballot.
These may not be flashy, but they are the mechanics necessary to win.