To judge the success of Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign, don't look at the number of county delegates he wins in next Tuesday's Iowa's caucuses, or even where he places in New Hampshire's primary the following week. Gingrich delegates to the Republican National Convention will not be the proper measure of the former speaker's bid. The increase in Newt's net worth will be the true gauge.
As the voting begins, Gingrich's presidential campaign looks even less like an effort to actually become president of the United States and more like the latest business venture by a politician -- the former speaker of the House, no less -- who has made millions exploiting conservatism and the Republican Party.
Newt Inc. is the unofficial name of a small network of enterprises making money for Gingrich on the strength of his name and reputation. "American Solutions for Winning the Future" was one such enterprise, anchored by two books ("Winning the Future," 2005 and "Real Change," 2008), and aimed at building an active network of Gingrich followers debating various "solutions" in web forums -- "The American Solutions Community," as Gingrich & Co. called it.
Anyone who has worked in marketing understands what was going on here. Gingrich lured in motivated private citizens to his "Solutions Lab," promising them they could "collaborate on developing policy solutions to the many challenges facing America," as one book put it. These right-leaning idealists' email addresses and personal information was then compiled into valuable lists.
Newt Inc. also used blunter tools to harvest valuable conservative email addresses. In 2008, for instance, Republicans were reeling from a teetering economy and the dismal poll ratings of George W. Bush, and so they focused on expanding offshore drilling. "It's our only winning issue," one top GOP aide told me. American Solutions began a petition campaign called "Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less," and raked in 100,000 online "signatures." These sort of online petitions are ubiquitous in today's politics. The organizers typically deliver the signatures to Capitol Hill or the White House, to little or no effect. The real purpose is building a mailing list that can then be sold to anyone looking for thousands of politically interested conservatives, or folks worried about gas prices.
In the case of Newt Inc., you can always sell your mailing lists to your own presidential campaign. In a July campaign filing, Newt 2012 (Gingrich's presidential campaign) listed a $47,005 debt to Newt Gingrich with the line item reading "Direct Mail List/Travel." The Washington Post reports that $42,000 of that was for the mailing list.
Mailing lists aren't the only way Newt 2012 has funneled money into the for-profit arms of Newt Inc. In April, according to a filing with the Federal Elections Commission, Gingrich's campaign paid $8,400 to Gingrich Productions for "web development."
And Newt 2012 campaign stops sometimes look more like book signings than campaign events. One college-age woman at the December opening of Newt's Iowa headquarters told me that earlier Newt events in Iowa featured "a 10-minute stump speech, two questions, and then half an hour of book signing." Many of Gingrich's television appearances, scheduled because he was a presidential candidate, turned into promotions for his books or films.
Book-sale numbers compiled by Nielsen show some Gingrich titles thriving, with a noticeable jump as he rose in the polls around Thanksgiving. Gingrich's "A Nation Like No Other" has sold 15,000 copies since its June release, while "Real Change" (published in 2008) saw its sales rate jump five-fold to about 65 copies per week late in the year.
Even when Newt Inc. wasn't profiting from Newt 2012, Newt himself was benefiting. Consider his campaign-funded trip with his wife to Hawaii in August, coinciding with their wedding anniversary. A Gingrich spokesman told Politico the trip was for fundraising, but his schedule listed no fundraisers in the state and FEC data shows no August contributions to Gingrich from any donors in Hawaii -- and only one since August, for $900, surely less than his plane fare.
Many people profit off of political causes, and that's nothing to be ashamed of. But Gingrich has exploited conservatism, because he has profited not by advancing the cause, but by harming it. He made money as a consultant and lobbyist trying to convince conservatives to support subsidies for housing, prescription drugs and ethanol. And this year, he has profited by temporarily convincing millions of conservatives that he's the right man to beat Obama.
There's a popular saying about causes that "start as a mass movement, become a business, and end up a racket." With Gingrich, a movement that changed American politics in 1994 has evolved into a Tiffany-studded, jet-setting lifestyle.
Timothy P. Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.