Shop Talk: Confessions of a Campaign Manager

Shop Talk: Confessions of a Campaign Manager
Four managers who helped steer their candidates to victory in 2010 talk strategy, tactics and why good campaign chiefs are tough to find.

This issue's shoptalkers: Brandon Hall, partner at Kully Hall and manager for Sen. Harry Reid's 2010 campaign; Mark Harris, partner at Cold Spark media and manager of Sen. Pat Toomey's campaign; David Kanevsky, research director at American Viewpoint and campaign manager for Rep. Charlie Bass; and Dan Kelly, campaign manager for Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy's 2010 race. 

C&E: What is the typical trajectory for a campaign manager? How do you normally come up through the ranks?

Dan Kelly: There are a couple of trajectories that I’ve seen on the Democratic side. A lot of people come up through the field ranks, because those skills translate well. I think some of the best Democratic managers are actually the ones who come up through the finance ranks. I see a lot of managers start on smaller races and build up to a congressional or statewide. Sometimes those folks struggle because they don’t have a core competency. If you come up through communications or field or finance, at least you have one major campaign component you feel really comfortable with.

Mark Harris: I’d agree on the Republican side. I feel like most of the managers come up through the political field shop. The folks who become really good finance guys usually leave and go start their own fundraising shop rather than manage a campaign.David Kanevsky: I think my polling background has really helped me in managing races. I might be unique in that role as far as I know, but I can look at the data and obviously know how to take the crosstabs and actualize them. Every manager role is a little different and I’ve definitely found myself meeting with a candidate and at the end of it saying, “Clearly, we’re not the right fit.”

Brandon Hall: I actually came from the finance side into management. One of the toughest jobs as a manager is managing the budget and the cash flow and I think that’s where a finance background gives you a leg up. Since I have that background, I can hire a less experienced finance director, but find a really strong field director or a really strong communications director.C&E: Is the manager always the top decision maker and do they tend to get too much blame or credit depending on how things are going?

Harris: I’ve seen two different models on our side. One is the strong campaign manager model; the other is the weak campaign manager model. I always came out of the weak campaign manager model, which has a general consultant who sets the overall framework of the campaign. They’re like the general contractor on a construction job and the campaign manager is basically the foreman. I found that works well because there’s someone at the top of the ladder who is clearly “the guy.” I did one race in the strong model where I was a lower level staffer and the problem was that the manager wasn’t strong enough to manage the consultant personalities who were all fighting over how much money they were going to make.

Kanevsky: I think both models are valid depending on the type of candidate and type of campaign. One thing that’s really important is defining the manager’s role very clearly from the start. Is the campaign manager in charge of the budget or is that the finance director’s responsibility?

Kelly: I think there are definitely those same two models on our side. One thing that happens a lot with a weak manager is that a general consultant will determine the five messages they want to push out and then tell the manager to do it. Sometimes the manager doesn’t really know how to implement that. In statewide races, there tends to be two or three different types—a weak, a strong and the hybrid is someone who can coordinate all the stakeholders and understand they aren’t the only person at the strategic table. That’s the best situation, because there are more people talking about the overall strategy.

Hall: I’ve actually always tried to stay away from the general consultant model when I’ve managed campaigns. Anyone who’s going to manage a campaign needs to have that direct line to the candidate themselves and have the candidate’s trust. Managing the consultant team is as big a part of the job as there is. From my point of view, the general consultant model has always thrown a wrench into that structure that I haven’t liked.

Harris: It’s the difference between managing a congressional race and a statewide, too. I’ve found that when you’re managing a congressional, you can still be very hands on. If something breaks, you can jump in as the manager and fix it. But on the Senate race, I would always joke with my senior staff that I didn’t do anything. I didn’t organize volunteers, I didn’t raise money; I just made sure everyone else is doing what they’re supposed to be doing.

Hall: The hardest part about learning to manage in general is being able to look back at your day and say, “Wow, I really didn’t produce any work today.” There’s usually no tangible thing you can say you produced, and yet you were busy all day. The management aspect of it is just so time consuming.

Kanevsky: The job description for a campaign manager: don’t mess it up. Put out fires where they need to be put out and don’t get distracted by whatever the crisis of the day is.

C&E: What about the manager who gets hired just because they’re a longtime friend of the candidate?

Hall: I think the trust factor is the hardest thing for someone who is running for office. A lot of times when the candidate has run a smaller race, they could manage every aspect of their campaign and they know all the terrain. But when you jump up to run for Congress or Senate, it’s impossible to do that. The candidates who are successful are the ones who learn quickly how to just be a candidate and simply trust their staff.

Kelly: Candidates have to develop the skill set that allows them to get to that point. Candidates may not know how to build confidence with this 20, 30 or 40-something from out of state who is now managing their campaign, so there’s a natural inclination to grab a friend. So if you come in as a manger, the question is how to engage the friend of the candidate to make your boss feel comfortable with what you’re doing.

Harris: And that’s what separates good campaign managers from great ones. It’s the ability to win the trust of the candidate. To know what has to be done to make the candidate comfortable with what’s going on so they can just be the candidate.

Kanevsky: Some of the best candidates I’ve worked for have either come out of the military or the business world. They understand the importance of structure. Some others don’t understand that as well and say things like, “Well, my friend told me today that he’s sick of all the negative ads, so I think we need to tone it down.” That never works well. One thing I’m curious about with you Mark is what it’s like to have both the candidate and manager experience? Did you actually have a manager when you ran for office?

Harris: I ran for state House in Pennsylvania in 2006 and I did have a manager. And even though I had worked on enough campaigns to know better, I still committed every sin in the book. I ended up managing my own race unnecessarily. I was a nightmare as a candidate and I think it has actually made me a lot better at this side of the business because I can understand some of what candidates are thinking. As managers, we get to leave after the election is over. They have to live with whatever happens because their name is on the ballot.

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