September 22, 2015
True underdog candidates rarely win presidential nominations. Often, a strong run grabs a VP nod or front runner status for next time, but usually you can’t get there from here.
When it happens, either the candidate wasn’t really an underdog by normal standards (Obama 2008), or some previously unnoticed strategic wrinkle was uncovered (Carter 1976).
If Carly Fiorina wins the 2016 Republican nomination, coming from obscurity without setting a new strategic template, against a huge field of competitors, it’s pretty much unprecedented.
High-performing underdogs usually fall short for one of two reasons. First, they usually have to focus more heavily on Iowa or New Hampshire, attempting to do well in a controlled environment and then use the momentum elsewhere. This means the candidate is forced to appeal to a particular slice of the primary electorate.
Second, they often need to run bare-bones operations until that early victory (or strong second place finish) propels them forward. When they finally have funding, it’s a scramble to organize on the ground in several states at once, integrate new people into the campaign team and deal with extra scrutiny all at once.
This is why betting on the favorite or strong challenger is usually a good idea. The last under-funded, unrecognized underdog to break through and actually win was Jimmy Carter. Favorites have fallen behind and blown through money before recovering (McCain 2008), but that’s different.
Barry Goldwater and George McGovern may have surprised some when they got nominated, but both were viewed as possibilities ahead of their respective nominating cycles.
Objectively looking at Fiorina’s chances when she decided to enter the race would have given her virtually no chance. While Carter took the long road, he was successfully elected governor of Georgia.
In addition to having at least some track record, he was the lone outsider in the race, where Fiorina shares that claim with several others, all of whom entered the race with more of a personal brand.
Carter focused on Iowa, all day, every day, while his opponents did not. Fiorina faces several Iowa-centric opponents, two of whom have already won Iowa in the past. If she were to focus on New Hampshire instead, others have that idea.
Carter got started really early for his time, beginning his campaign in early 1975, a full year before any primaries and caucuses. Now everybody does that.
Yet, Carly has a real chance at the nomination, particularly if she can survive the extra scrutiny over the next several weeks as her campaign ramps up and expands. Some of the secret to this impossible success is found on the roster of her team.
Nobody on Team Carly is famous yet. You don’t see her campaign manager, spokesperson, etc. being interviewed on a regular basis. None of her key people made their mark getting someone else elected president.
Unlike the departed Scott Walker, it’s a small, cost-effective group. Unlike the Jeb Bush team, none were hired to make sure Marco Rubio or some other competitor couldn’t.
Candidates are often victimized by their staff. Running for president is horribly difficult for all involved. Even if everyone has the best motives, staffers want to protect their careers, making sure they can get hired again if things don’t go well, get a good White House position if they do.
This isn’t evil, just a modicum of ambition, without which nobody can work 100 hour weeks for months on end. Rivalries develop, people get angry, not unlike what happens in a baseball clubhouse over a long season.
When the candidate has a great chance of victory, the crap is covered over with the potpourri of imminent victory. People join up to play on a winning team. It’s easier for the senior big shots to maintain discipline.
On an underdog squad, everybody grinds. Then when things improve and the money gets better, there is usually conflict between those there at the beginning and the bandwagon crew, many who have arrived from campaigns that flamed out.
Carly’s group is uniquely constructed to avoid this. Just as her pitch is currently the perfect balance of outside reformer and establishment-friendly attention to detail, her team is experienced enough without having ego issues.
How can we know this from a distance? How can I be reasonably sure of this having never met any of her team, or read more than an article on any of them?
Winning campaign teams have a few things in common:
1. They don’t use hired guns
Bob Shrum is one of the more famous Democratic operatives of the past several decades. He’s participated in many memorable campaigns and is credited with writing Ted Kennedy’s 1980 convention speech, likely the senator’s best public moment.
He’s helped countless mayors, governors and senators get ejected. Political parties in Israel and the U.K. have hired him. Shrum is a minor legend. He just hasn’t ever helped elect a president.
Though he helped Dick Gephardt win Iowa in 1988 and Al Gore and John Kerry get nominated, none went the distance. All wound up sounding a bit like a Bob Shrum candidate, even if it wasn’t really the best fit.
Whether due to good planning, or no real GOP big shot being interested, Carly has avoided Trap #1.
2. Plenty of comfort with party apparatus
You don’t want to hire a star who made his reputation elsewhere, but you also don’t want isolation. If the goal is to become president, not just take a nice extended test drive, you’ll need to work with many pseudo-partners during the cycle.
One of the most important is coordinating with the national committee. While the RNC and DNC are officially supposed to give each candidate a fair shot, it doesn’t realistically work that way in practice.
DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz is currently under heavy fire from Martin O’Malley and others over the limited (6) number of Democratic debates. Whether this is actually good for Hillary or not, the perception is the rules were set to accommodate her.
When it looked like Fiorina might miss the CNN main event due to shortage of new polling results, her team, led by Deputy Campaign Manager Sarah Isgur Flores, petitioned the RNC publicly and privately to let Carly in. Flores’ previous job at the RNC couldn’t have hurt.
Press Secretary Anna Epstein cut her teeth at the RNC too. When it came time to build the case to make sure Fiorina made the main event, she had the staffers with the perfect background to know what approach she should take.
Given the impact of the debate on Carly’s candidacy, this may prove the most important save of the entire campaign cycle.
Campaign Manager Frank Sadler spent time at Koch Industries, giving the campaign high-level ties to the most important donors in the Republican Party. While the RNC is as establishment as it gets, the Koch Brothers are more willing to fund insurgent candidates. Fiorina is covered both ways.
3. Execute on the details
Presidential campaigns have millions of little complexities. Often underdogs slip up on procedural issues, aren’t prepared to transition from early states to later ones, from retail politics to running ads and doing rallies at airports.
Somehow a candidate needs to find people with the experience of working on a complicated campaign, without just accumulating a pile of political lifers with no major loyalty to the new campaign.
Again, it appears Team Carly has this covered. Many of her second-level staffers were involved in the 2012 Romney campaign, particularly on the logistics side. This means Fiorina’s campaign is not likely to get overwhelmed as things get more involved.
She has the benefit of people who helped make Romney’s train run on time, without employing the senior strategists who were unable to make his time at Bain Capital a positive instead of a negative.
Having people who were part of the RNC, Koch Brothers and Romney 2012 means they will be able to add new campaign staff over the next weeks and months and integrate them. That’s more than enough sources to pull from.
For each of the 15 or so personnel I could find a bio on, this isn’t their first campaign, but it is their most important role in a presidential effort. Carly has chosen promising young politicos on their way up, not retreads on their way down.
As simple and logical as that sounds, few candidates do this. Many want to hire the biggest name they can find for credibility. In doing so, they wind up with someone who was available to a second-tier candidate for a reason.
Several strong underdogs have chosen as Carly has–this is a mark that separates the effective underdogs from the less-effective, but rarely do they also have the establishment ties that her squad does.
It’s interesting to note that her campaign has done less vulturing from the Walker carcass than several competitors, which is in line with Fiorina’s hiring philosophy.
The odds are still against any one candidate becoming president. Somebody will, but with 15 remaining candidates on the GOP side, nobody has a 50% chance of being nominated yet, let alone winning next fall.
Due to in part to wisely selecting her closest advisors, Fiorina now has better odds than most of the field. If I had to guess, would list her second after Rubio as the most likely nominee. Unlike her historical underdog predecessors, Carly may have built a team to last.