2016 Democrats, Debates, Strategy, Uncategorized

The Trouble With Advisors

March 28, 2016

Being a political advisor is hard. You work long hours, under tons of pressure. A relatively small group of people are responsible for the day-to-day decisions that can make the difference between electing a president and creating a punch line.

There is a consolation prize. Once you’ve reached the inner circle in an important campaign, you can spend the rest of your existence as a CNN panelist. It’s good work, and many would trade places, but also not the same as being in the arena.

David Axelrod and Karl Rove can write their own ticket for the rest of their lives because they won. Twice. Remember the guys and gals who lost to them? Didn’t think so. They’re there on TV, but don’t have the same clout or income earning potential.

Also, Axe and Karl got White House jobs. They spent time in the Oval, at the elbow of power. Very little separates success from failure. A few votes in Florida and Rove only gets close, doesn’t become a legend.

If Hillary’s team takes Candidate Obama a little more seriously in 2007, budgets a bit better, takes caucus delegates under more advisement and Axelrod is a guy who elected a few people in Chicago.

Unless you are working with a big underdog, coming close isn’t good enough. Just winning a nomination isn’t good enough. If you’re working for the biggest front runner in the recent history of American politics, running against Larry David, you are not allowed to lose.

When Joe Biden said no, they thought they’d won. Not that they didn’t need to try, not that Bernie couldn’t win Iowa and New Hampshire, but that they could start envisioning a general election campaign.

In November, Donald Trump was not an undisputed front runner. Jeb! was only mostly dead. Team Clinton had plenty to think about, plenty to prepare for. Marco Rubio was still a very, very, very real threat.

You can talk all you want about contested primaries creating better candidates. To a point it’s true. Incumbent presidents often struggle in their first fall debate due to rust. Their opponent has spent months and months debating and honing their points.

With Biden gone, Bernie was the only obstacle keeping Clinton from running as an incumbent. If he pushed her a bit at first, no problem, as long as she put a stop to him in Nevada, and finished him off in South Carolina and on Super Tuesday.

Approaching Christmas, this still appeared viable. Hillary was ahead by safe amounts in national polls, led in Iowa polls. A potential New Hampshire loss to neighbor Sanders was no big deal. It looked like she’d have enough competition to stay fresh, not enough to get in the way of fall plans.

Then Trump attacked. Each time Hillary begins to pivot towards the general election, she focuses on The Donald. It makes sense. He’s was the GOP poll leader and is now the delegate leader too.

Democratic primary voters are largely anti-Trump. Showing her ability to run against him later helps her now. So she hit, calling out Trump for saying mean things about women. He hit back, it’s what he does. In this case, he targeted Bill Clinton’s history with women and what Hillary had done to help or protect him.

Instantly the polls narrowed. Bernie pulled well in front in New Hampshire. He got very close in Iowa. After several days of back and forth, Trump moved his attention to the more present danger of Ted Cruz.

We don’t know what would have happened if Trump kept the pressure on. He frequently refers to this episode when explaining why he will win in the fall. The Law of Diminishing Returns will kick in eventually, but who knows if The Donald stopped just before or way before it was a threat.

Hillary’s pollster Joel Benenson is an import from Team Obama. Her chief strategist Robby Mook was with her in ’08. Her Nevada caucus performance was a bright spot, he was largely responsible for it, so he got a promotion for 2016. Brian Fallon is her spokesman. He’s mostly an opportunist looking to spend a few years as White House press secretary.

There are plenty of other people involved in the campaign, but these are the three most likely to get airtime, to put out a release, to attempt to drive the narrative. Personally, I find Mook the easiest to listen to. He’s a data guy. As such, though he needs to pitch the company line, his words are grounded in some form of numerical reality.

Benenson is a pro. They hired him because he did good work for Obama, not because of ties to the Clintons. While you might think he has nothing to prove, pollsters aren’t as high up the food chain as strategists. People like Axelrod and David Plouffe got most of the credit for Obama.

Being affiliated with two winning candidates certainly wouldn’t hurt. When Iowa was close and New Hampshire an embarrassment, word on the street was Berenson was in trouble. Backs seemingly up against the wall, the Clintons were listening to their old hands.

He kept his cool and the Nevada victory kept the wheels from coming completely off. It was a deceptively close call. No telling what changes Hillary, Bill, or their largest contributors would have wanted to see.

As the race progressed and Hillary got back on track, we saw and heard less from the big three. When Hillary won South Carolina 3 to 1, Team Sanders needed to worry about spin, not Clinton. From Super Tuesday forward, delegate math has done more for Clinton than any spokesman ever could.

She has a huge advantage whenever CNN or MSNBC put a panel together to talk about the election. Most of the participants have some past or current connection to the Clintons. The anchors are more comfortable with her than the outsider Sanders.

While the media loves a horse race and it’s better for ratings, the GOP has taken care of the need for entertainment and drama. The contrast has helped Hillary in a few ways. With Trump such a threat/prospect to get the nomination, Bernie isn’t the biggest surprise.

He’s not the most interesting insurgent. In any other year, he’d be a bigger story. A guy who looks and acts like Larry David has raised almost $100 million from tiny individual donations in the first quarter of the year. That’s legitimately huge and overthrows everything we assumed about campaign finance. Even Barack Obama needed some big contributors.

So Hillary had this won and locked up again. Interest in Bernie would fade, she could go back to talking mostly about Trump, and the advisors would live happily ever after again.

Bernie’s Michigan win injected a bit of unexpected drama, but when he couldn’t follow it up on March 15 or in Arizona, it became an outlier. Mook had even planned for a Michigan defeat, pushing a pre-vote narrative that even if he won, Hillary’s Mississippi landslide would give her the majority of delegates on the evening.

Back when she was still in trouble, the campaign agreed to additional debates. Hillary’s team wanted a shot at Sanders before New Hampshire, deciding the limited schedule pushed through by the DNC and Hillary ally Debbie Wasserman Schultz wasn’t adequate.

In exchange for the last-minute addition, Bernie secured the promise of an April debate at a location TBD and a May debate in California. Even at the time it was clear Sanders wanted a face-off in New York. The details were left for later.

Just when Hillary’s team thought Bernie was completely out of the way, almost totally mathematically eliminated, he outperformed on Pacific Saturday. Many analysts have dismissed it because he hasn’t shown he can win primaries in ethnically diverse states.

They aren’t wrong that he has a ton of work to do, but for the first time Sanders did better than Candidate Obama. While you might not think it matters if he got 72% in Washington compared to the 60something everybody was ready for, it probably does. Breaking 80% is really hard, even in Alaska.

In case you haven’t noticed, Berners are rabidly behind their candidate. It doesn’t take much to give them hope. He’s won 5 recent contests with no less than 70% of the vote. Noncompetitive candidates don’t usually do this. It means Hillary needs to keep working.

That’s not completely awful. She does better when in a fight. Bernie’s February threat was dealt with in Nevada when she pushed over the final couple days. His March threat was dispatched a week later when she hung on in Missouri and Illinois, and won easily in Ohio.

There’s a different problem this time though. The election reaches New York soon. The potential for embarrassment is greater there than anywhere else. Donald Trump is virtually guaranteed to do very well in the same state on the same day.

If Hillary wins, big deal. She was supposed to. New Yorkers elected her to the Senate twice. It’s a closed primary, not an open caucus. There are plenty of African American and Latino voters. Her campaign headquarters are in Brooklyn. Nothing to gain, everything to lose.

What Bernie can’t accomplish with delegate math, he can by defeating Hillary in the Empire State. If she wins, the final threat to the nomination is gone. He’s polling poorly in the April 26 states to follow.

Remember that April debate? Well the Sanders team wants to lock it down for New York. Hillary’s team doesn’t like this. They’re already pissed they still have to think about Bernie. Every day he keeps them leaning left is a day they can’t move back towards the center, can’t think about marginalizing Trump, casting Cruz as a conservative extremist.

The Sanders campaign sent an open letter to Team Clinton, proposing that New York debate. They’ve decided to say no, at least for now. They don’t like Bernie’s tone. They think he’s getting too nasty.

They’re personally offended this guy who shouldn’t have lasted this long, shouldn’t continue to keep them from focusing on the fall, is calling them out and looking for an opportunity to embarrass their boss.

Most political operatives aren’t overly ideological. You work for the candidate who pays you. There are exceptions. There are instances where a young strategist and young candidate grow up together.

That isn’t the case here. Mook and Fallon weren’t born yet when the Clintons got started in politics. Benenson isn’t their guy. The progressive true believers are with Bernie, or sat this one out hoping for Elizabeth Warren to drop in.

The nomination is being decided by voters who like Bernie better but have more confidence in Hillary’s ability to execute the presidency. So far, when Hillary has flirted with trouble, these voters have bailed her out, deciding they want the person they believe is most qualified.

I’m not sure exactly what the line is, exactly where these voters decide their qualms about Hillary are powerful enough for them to take a chance on Bernie. So far, Hillary has responded to a challenge by working hard, by fighting for those votes.

Fallon and Friends were never given more than a couple of days to dig themselves a hole with voters watching on CNN. Part of this was the calendar. They sounded bad after New Hampshire, but Nevada wiped our collective memory soon after.

There wasn’t an opportunity for a post-Michigan meltdown. The March 15 states were immediately up next. No time, too many other stories.

Now we have time. Wisconsin is the only significant contest (I doubt Hillary’s team wants any additional focus on the pending Wyoming wipeout) before New York. Bailing on debating looks bad. Talking down to Bernie looks worse.

Two problems with that. The more it happens, the harder to get Berners on board in November. Even if they find Trump odious, they may just stay home. In blue states, where many of them reside, it wouldn’t stop Clinton from winning, but would harm Democratic Senate candidates.

Grouchy advisors can also push those undecided or somewhat conflicted primary voters over the edge. It might make them want to send a message, show Hillary she shouldn’t assume the nomination belongs to her.

We’ve already discovered Bernie’s best issue is Hillary’s refusal to release transcripts of her highly paid speeches to Goldman Sachs. His Wall Street critique resonates with many Democrats. Even Republicans believe inequality is real and increasing.

Avoiding a debate in New York, and doing so by slamming Sanders is the perfect storm. If they think they can or should prevent it to keep Bernie from having a chance to re-open the nomination conversation, they are wrong.

Hillary is a strong debater, regardless of the terrain. Bernie has improved noticeably, but this is still a good format for her. Attempting to hide can accomplish what they fear the debate would/could.

If you’re afraid of Larry David, what are you going to do with Trump?

I can’t tell you this is all on the advisors. Hillary and Bill might want to avoid a New York debate at least as much. I’m dead certain Bill is dead tired of Bernie Sanders existing.

But the purpose of advisors is to keep their candidate from making mistakes, to sometimes save her from herself. Only Donald Trump can get away with doing whatever he wants however he wants, and he hasn’t won the presidency just yet.

Pushing back is hard. Most of us would like to keep our bosses happy whenever and however possible. When you think you were in the clear, ready to move on to the next step and find out you were wrong, that you need to keep grinding it out, it’s hard to find that extra bit of backbone to push back.

It appears they’re either wrong themselves or don’t have the energy to push back. You’ll know somebody figured out there was a problem, as soon as you see/hear more of Mook and less of Fallon.

His smugness combined with this strategic approach will backfire quickly. Bernie needs plenty of help to overcome the math. Today I’m starting to think the Clinton campaign will provide it.

 

 

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