Hall: Going back to the friends of the candidate and the kitchen cabinet—and I’ll include spouses in this—as a manager you need to figure out who the key people are around the candidate and how to win them over. Whether it’s a close friend or a spouse, someone is always going to be complaining about something the campaign is or is not doing. To be able to go and have those people trust you as a manager is essential for success.
C&E: How do you all approach communication with the candidate? Is there a good way to deliver bad news?
Hall: It really depends on the candidate. When I manage a campaign, I have a meeting set with the candidate every Sunday afternoon. We sit down in an informal setting and just talk for an hour about what’s going right and what isn’t. And make sure the candidate is part of the decision making process to begin with so they have some ownership of a decision if something ends up not working.
Harris: I think it depends on how severe the bad news is. I always made very clear to my senior staff that the candidate doesn’t need to know about most bad news, because they’ll just get distracted. If it’s something huge, I always try to present the bad news and then present some sort of solution. The hardest thing I ever had to do was tell a candidate on Election Night in a congressional race that he was done after seeing the returns from just one precinct. He had put $2 million of his own money into the race and he was about to get crushed. That was not pleasant.
Kelly: There’s certainly value in a weekly meeting with the candidate or delivering a weekly memo. But the best environment is one in which you have a candidate willing to just grab a beer or dinner once a week. More of how they’re really feeling about the campaign will come out in that environment than will ever come out in a campaign office or during a more structured sit down.
Harris: What’s always been helpful to me with candidates is that I’ve come in right at the beginning in all the races I’ve managed. In both cases I traveled extensively with the candidate and that experience lets you really get to know who the candidate is and makes the relationship much easier.
Hall: That’s a good point. I really think the hardest times I’ve had as a campaign manager have come when I’ve been the last person to join the team. It happened to me a couple of times and you’re always playing catch up.
Kelly: Too many candidates hold off on hiring managers because they’re concerned about the budget. That’s when mistakes get made. Then the manager ends up walking into a situation where there’s a cruddy contract negotiated on the media buy percentage and there’s a completely worthless poll that happened three months before you got there. Just by being in place and running a tight ship, you could have saved your salary five times over early on in the campaign. A lot of folks think campaign managers are all averse to doing any fundraising, but they shouldn’t think that. I wish there was more of a conversation about using the manager to help start the finance operation. If you’re willing to serve in sort of a finance director role in addition to management, then maybe you come on earlier. More candidates should think about that model.
Kanevsky: Starting early is really valuable. Too many campaigns think they don’t need a manager early on and then by the time they bring one on, it’s too late. Too many bad decisions have already been made.
Harris: I also feel like staff is an afterthought on a lot of nonpresidential races. Campaigns agonize over their media consultants, but when they hire staff sometimes they settle for the guy down the street. Not that I support staff-heavy campaigns, but there can be really wise ways to spend money staff-wise that will save you down the line. There were several Republican Senate campaigns last year that paid the price for not making the right staff decisions.
Kelly: You see so many campaigns boggle the roll-out. When campaigns start without a manager, that’s when you see the website not ready on time or when you don’t have enough talking points. It’s one of the times you need a campaign manager the most and yet it’s one of the times campaigns are most likely to go without a manager.
Hall: It used to be the case that the consultants at the DCCC would instruct candidates to hold off as long as possible in hiring a campaign manager in order to save money. Nowadays that advice has changed and they’re telling candidates to hire a campaign manager immediately. Harry Reid called me in November of 2008 about managing his campaign in 2010. For this next cycle, every congressional campaign that I’m working with already has a campaign manager. That’s a big shift and more often than not now, campaigns bring on a manager first.
Harris: On the Republican side, I have found it incredibly hard to find talented managers because as soon as someone—and I guess I’m an example of this—but as soon as someone manages a race they go become a lobbyist or open their own firm or go work on the official side. So I think we struggle on this side to find enough talented people for that role.