January 2, 2016
Happy New Year! We are now only a month away from actual voting. Once the primaries and caucuses begin, the pace picks up tremendously for all surviving campaigns.
Underdogs who exceed expectations will need to quickly leverage the results. Others will need to recover instantly from setbacks. Most importantly, campaigns will need to function in several places at once and figure out where to allocate their funds and candidate time.
As the recent shake-up in the Ben Carson campaign shows, not all of the contenders have the foundation necessary to go the distance. Most successful presidential candidates have a core group of advisors/campaign staff from previous campaigns.
If you’re a first-time candidate, that’s not possible. This is part of the reason why it’s hard to win a nomination as a rookie. Ex-Campaign Manager Barry Bennett and former Communications Director Doug Watts had no prior experience with Carson.
Longtime friend and advisor Armstrong Williams does. As he was adding kindling to the fire during exit interviews with the media, Bennett blamed interference from Armstrong as a leading factor in his decision to quit the campaign.
Losing a campaign manager isn’t a sign of doom by itself. Ronald Reagan dispatched John Sears the night of the 1980 New Hampshire primary (which Reagan won). This was no minor thing. Sears received considerable credit for shepherding Reagan to a near upset of incumbent President Ford in 1976.
He’d previously played a role on the victorious 1968 Richard Nixon campaign. But he was pushing one way, and several of Reagan’s loyalists from California were shoving another. Ultimately Sears, who took significant heat for his failed approach in Iowa (where George H.W. Bush surprised Reagan) lost the battle.
However, much like John McCain, who won the 2008 nomination after firing his campaign manager (John Weaver, who led his 2000 insurgent nomination campaign), Reagan was an experienced politician who had recently run for president.
Both candidates had access to other existing staffers and advisors who had experience with them and on presidential campaigns. McCain had several months to recover before anyone actually voted. Reagan’s staff alteration was buried under the victory/comeback story.
Carson, who saw 20 lower-level staffers follow Bennett and Watts out the door, has no such margin for error. Drifting downward in the polls before must-win Iowa, this just adds to the narrative he isn’t ready for the presidency.
If we can safely eliminate Carson as a serious contender, who of the remaining candidates has a group around them who can handle the strain of the coming months?
Who is woefully unprepared? Let’s take a quick look. Click on the links to see a campaign roster for each candidate.
In 2008, Team Clinton was notoriously disfunctional. Given how close the contest with Barack Obama was, it’s entirely likely the difference in the effectiveness of their support staff made the difference.
Hillary has patched together a something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue team for her second try.
Several longtime Hillary loyalists led by Huma Abedin are on board, joined by a new, younger campaign manager, Robbie Mook.
Several important Obama contributors are participating, along with John Podesta, who has participated in Democratic presidential politics from Bill Clinton through Obama.
Given her attempt to consolidate the party and avoid previous mistakes, this is a logical approach. It appears the various factions are well balanced, and figures like Podesta with ties to many can help keep things together.
While the candidate herself isn’t always a natural and a large campaign can’t always respond quickly, don’t expect many unforced errors.
In many respects, the Sanders effort is halfway between previous nice try efforts like Howard Dean in 2004 and the very ready for prime time Obama in 2008.
Campaign Manager Jeff Weaver has worked for Sanders since 1986, giving him the loyalist any candidate needs. Strategist Tad Devine has worked on several Democratic presidential campaigns.
While that checks both boxes, there’s no evidence of a dynamic team behind Sanders, one capable of making quick decisions and innovating.
The fundraising operation is performing beyond expectations, having pulled in over two million individual contributions. Bernie won’t fall short due to lack of funds.
However, they have yet to put out any transformative media with those financial resources. Given what they are up against, the ability to create pieces, whether for paid advertising, YouTube, or some other format, is very helpful.
After a bit of a rough start, coordination with the thousands of committed volunteers is improving. Sanders won’t lose because his team let him down. They just might not be exceptional enough to help him overcome Hillary’s institutional advantages.
While it probably doesn’t matter if the O’Malley campaign is built to last, they somehow managed to fail to get on the Ohio primary ballot. Only 1000 signatures were required. They submitted 1100+, but some were disallowed.
For a campaign with 40 paid staffers on the ground in Iowa, this is a costly oversight. There’s no point trying to pull an upset (or even a better than expected finish that would create momentum), if you aren’t in a position to capitalize on it.
While his campaign team has plenty of experience and many key figures have worked on previous presidential campaigns, exposure to the well-funded Clinton, Gore or Obama efforts aren’t necessarily preparation for what O’Malley is up against.
As a college student in 1984, O’Malley worked on the insurgent Gary Hart campaign and has referenced that formative experience as an inspiration for his current effort.
The difference is Hart ran the 1972 underdog McGovern campaign and had far more ability to keep the press interested than O’Malley does. It doesn’t appear he has the pieces necessary to do the impossible.
While Carson is doing his best to show why rookies don’t win presidential nominations, Trump is clicking along like someone who has done this before.
His ability to manipulate the media through regular TV appearances and 5.5 million Twitter followers takes the pressure off his communicators team to set an agenda.
Normally a campaign spends significant time trying to figure out how to get the candidate enough publicity. Other staffers calm him when controversy breaks out and help strategize a response. Not necessary here. Trump is completely self-sufficient on messaging.
This doesn’t mean Trump is doing this on his own. Those giant rallies he’s always bragging about. People still have to coordinate them. By all accounts, they’re doing well.
Campaign Manager Corey Lewandowski has never worked on a presidential campaign. His listed experience only includes a 2002 Senate run (conveniently in New Hampshire).
Given Trump’s requirements, this is probably ok. He’s more than willing to let The Donald be The Donald, something Carson is now complaining his managers did not do.
The campaign has avoided spending money on advertising, but has shelled out for paid staff on the ground. Trump has more paid staffers in Iowa than any other GOP campaign, led by Chuck Laudner who helped steer Rick Santorum to victory there in 2012.
It appears the plan is to have Trump do his thing on the national level, driving the weekly agenda and taking up all the oxygen, while competent, experienced ground people work out local details and make sure the trains run. Gotta say, that sounds reasonable.
Should Trump win the nomination, coordinating his lean team with the RNC infrastructure could be very interesting. It’s possible he would entirely pass on the normal link-up.
Cruz has the team that most closely matches previous winning efforts. Several prominent aides have experience with Ted from Texas. Others worked with Rick Perry back home. As I’ll argue in a subsequent piece, the Texas approach is a crucial part of current GOP politics.
Some top people have previously worked on presidential campaigns, so there’s adequate experience, but none held positions so senior that this is old hat. If you have nobody with presidential background, it’s a problem, but repeating what worked last time often doesn’t work either.
Those who have not worked with Cruz before have ties to his portion of the conservative movement. While it’s extremely difficult to determine the ideological leanings of political professionals, they’ve certainly demonstrated comfort with semi-similar candidates.
The candidate himself is more focused on strategy than average and plays an important role in directing the overriding themes he carries out. From a distance, it would appear he has an ideal balance of being involved without micromanaging.
For several years, Cruz has followed a vision of what the 2016 race would look like and how he needed to position himself. While he may run aground at some point, for now he looks eerily prescient.
So far Team Rubio is most notable for compactness. He has the smallest footprint of any top tier campaign, particularly on the ground in early states.
Campaign Manager Terry Sullivan and the rest of the team, most with ties to Rubio’s 2010 upset Florida win over Charlie Crist, seem uniformity unconcerned with expectations.
While the Cruz campaign is the most visibly strategic, Rubio’s approach is most dismissive of conventional wisdom.
If they are wrong that he can ignore some of the normal structure and dismiss going all out in Iowa or New Hampshire, we’ll know soon enough.
If the strategy is sound, Rubio has a strong inner circle to rely on going forward, comfortable in the knowledge they are willing to consider taking calculated risks and dispensing with following tradition.
Christie’s team knows their candidate. Most of the important players were involved in his 2009 and 2013 New Jersey campaigns. Several others have ties to the RNC, in many cases working with Christie in his role helping elect Republican governors in 2014.
Should Christie complete his comeback, win New Hampshire and move forward, these contacts would help him quickly build out a campaign currently with little if any ground presence in any of the states voting March 1 or after.
As the campaign fought irrelevance for months, it stayed together, always a good sign. Given the challenge ahead in building out on the fly (best case scenario), he’s going to rely on this cohesion every step of the way.
Combined with the RNC ties, it’s the only thing standing between Christie and the fate of other underdogs who couldn’t leverage an early upset.
His overall team is decently balanced, and doesn’t lack for experience. Kasich decided to focus on New Hampshire and has tapped into John Sununu’s organization.
Others, on his regular campaign and PAC have participated in multiple presidential cycles. Kasich himself isn’t exactly a political novice. The most conspicuous absence is somebody new.
The roster is heavily populated with people who worked on campaigns in the past century. Younger advisors haven’t brought new tricks. In choosing John Weaver as senior strategist, Kasich bought in to the 2000 John McCain/2012 John Huntsman New Hampshire program.
It worked once, before failing dismally last time. For months, it’s appeared this was a poor fit for the 2016 cycle and perhaps the particular candidate. McCain, whatever his flaws, is a unique politician. The same clothes are hard to fit on another, especially one with a distinct personality of his own.
There isn’t much evidence Kasich’s team is in good position to leverage a good New Hampshire result going forward, nor is he a favorite to outperform Rubio or Christie at the Granite State polls.
In the first half of 2015, Jeb rapidly constructed the largest campaign of the GOP field, second only to Hillary’s colossus. His super PAC raised the most money and has invested millions in ads.
Neither the campaign nor PAC have made any incredibly obvious, super-visible mistakes. While they’ve re-deployed resources from headquarters to the field and made other adjustments as the campaign lost altitude and had trouble raising additional funds, few first-guessed any of the original plans.
Despite the setbacks, Bush has lost few senior people and avoided the chaos that often plagues underachieving campaigns. It’s a solid group.
But nothing more than solid. The campaign isn’t doing anything new or revolutionary and the candidate himself is, as we know, flawed at best.
If Bush should somehow survive the next several weeks and wind up competing after New Hampshire, he does have the talent and resources on hand to function for the following several months.
If he can improve himself as he continues to gain experience (remember, the name Bush isn’t new, but Jeb hasn’t run for anything since 2002), the crew won’t hold him back. They just can’t make him anything more than he is.
At this point, we are almost talking about the Paul campaign in the past tense. Absent an unexpected earthquake in the contest, Rand is going to spend the fall trying to win re-election to his Senate seat, not serving as the GOP presidential standard bearer.
In doing the pre-autopsy, a look at his A-team, both campaign and PAC side shows several people with experience on several presidential campaigns, some going back to the 1990s.
All were on the Republican side only. This helps explain why Paul was unable to build the type of insurgent campaign that has propelled Trump and Bernie to relevance in 2016.
While each have generated plenty of enthusiasm and Sanders has raised tons of money ($33 million in the fourth quarter of 2015), Paul never took off, stuck between being a conventional candidate and an outsider.
Without the longer political career to build loyalists, or creative outsider advisors, he was left without a group who could properly leverage his position.
Until yesterday’s tweet, Fiorina made few visible mistakes. If a staffer knew she was about to channel the worst instincts of the Clinton campaign and participate in obvious pandering of the worst kind, they should lose their job.
Despite being a Stanford alum, Carly thought it best to root for the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Rose Bowl. Bad move. Sports fans are always sensitive to politicians with an angle.
This goof aside, her team is actually pretty solid. Several have previous presidential-level experience and connections to key GOP/conservative contributors.
However, there’s nothing clearly more exceptional about her group than that of Cruz or Rubio, mirroring the problems Fiorina had over the past 100 days or so trying to capitalize on strong early debate performances.
Without the ability to dominate the media like Trump, or the more established brands of Rubio or Cruz, Fiorina needed to build a truly special campaign to have a real shot to get nominated.
Huckabee’s campaign manager is his daughter. This isn’t as bad as it sounds. Sarah Huckabee Sanders is a full-time political operative, not just a legacy choice. Robert F. Kennedy didn’t seem to have any trouble piloting his brother’s effort in 1960.
If part of any successful effort is leaning on people you trust, it’s a good start. Unfortunately, his last election victory came in 2002, and his last run was 2008, so most of the rest of his team isn’t available.
While he’s picked up other experienced professionals, passing on a 2012 campaign likely prevented Huckabee from putting together a real, top-tier group. Compared to the Cruz campaign, this is a limited operation, one that has found itself unable to raise funds.
Both Carson (albeit inefficiently) and Cruz have raised considerable sums from small donors. With more imagination, the well-known Huckabee could have done the same.
Back in August, the main figures in the Santorum campaign de-camped to his super PAC, due to lack of available funds in the main campaign. While people have gone back and forth in other campaigns, this was especially noteworthy (for both people paying attention).
It appears Santorum learned the wrong lesson from his underdog performance in 2012. He managed to win Iowa by spending time in each of the 99 counties and out-working his competitors.
The plan for 2016 was rinse, wash, repeat. The problem is he failed to win the nomination in part due to lack of resources to compete after Iowa. Instead of attempting to leverage his second-place finish into being more ready to run a national campaign, he decided to play the same script.
With way more competition, he never got off the ground. If he wasn’t going to take himself seriously as a major campaign, no reason for anyone else to. That’s why his 2012 Iowa coordinator works for Trump.
It’s not usually obvious which campaign teams will become historically memorable until voters start weighing in. This is no exception. None have yet distinguished themselves to the point where we are sure we’ll mention them years from now.
Several are potentially interesting, depending on results. If Bernie wins Iowa, the Sanders team is pretty strong. If Cruz or Rubio win the nomination and then perform well in the fall, odds are very good their senior advisors will have long and lucrative careers going forward.
A Trump victory will justify plenty of analysis into exactly how they pulled this off. Christie seems to have a strong group and should he somehow win the nomination, it would qualify as a historic comeback.
If we wind up remembering any campaign team positively, it will come from one of those five. Few of the others are doing anything dumb enough to worry about. It’s more a matter of missed opportunities in 2015 making them less relevant for 2016.
Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign trudges forward with the goal of doing nothing to destroy her relative inevitability.