Kelly: The developing PAC side of life is changing that, too. I feel like there are now opportunities for folks that might otherwise manage governor’s races or Senate races to go and do something else. It opens up a whole new trajectory and on some level I wonder whether or not that’s impacting the quality of managers.
Kanevsky: It used to be that you just dealt with your campaign and your opponent. Now there’s your campaign, the opponent, the committee IE, the opposing committee IE, the pro-527 and the anti-527. The good news from the business perspective is that it’s basically the full consultant employment act. But it also makes the job of a manager more difficult. And I do think a lot of talent may be moving out there and away from campaigns.
Hall: I think that’s definitely part of it, but the lifestyle you live if you’re a campaign manager over many cycles is really grueling. One thing I’ve always admired about the Republican side is that I think they take care of their operatives more—there are more places for them to go in the off years and still have a job and make money and then go back out on a campaign in the on-year. I don’t think we do that as well on the Democratic side. It’s really hard to manage a campaign and then go three or four months looking for work. Moving every two years and then going four or five months without a job kind of sucks.
Kanevsky: The growth of all these outside players also means that as a manager you don’t need to go find a private sector job in the off-year, because you can work for an outside group. And it’s helpful because I think campaigns need to better understand how to communicate through the firewall. Some campaigns are doing this very well. Look at the Obama campaign—reading Politico is like reading what the Obama campaign wants to say to all the Democratic 527s.
C&E: When you recognize early on in a race that you have a weak opponent, does that change the approach substantially?
Hall: Absolutely. One of the first strategic decisions is figuring out what kind of campaign it’s going to be. When you work for an incumbent whose approval rating is about 32 percent, you realize very quickly that the campaign’s not going to be about your candidate, it’s going to be about the opponent. As an operative, we all would like to run these great campaigns that talk about how inspiring the candidate you’re working for is. It just rarely works out that way. And as much as people say they hate the negative—it works.
Kelly: For a lot of managers, being from out of state and not being that 20-year friend of the candidate really helps you. Last cycle in Connecticut, our media guy was Josh Isay, who’s one of the smartest strategists I’ve seen in a long time. He coached our team to think about the fact that every story you’re trying to tell has a little bit of negative and a little bit of positive. You can win a race by making sure your candidate is disliked less than your opponent.
Harris: I love out-of-state managers. And if you can’t get an out-of-state manager, I think your political director should be from out of state. Someone needs to be there who’s not worrying about angering a certain county chairman. You need to have someone there as a straight mercenary.
Kelly: I would never run for office because I would be a terrible candidate. But if I did run, I would want an out of state manager who has no interest in a job with me and has a house five states away that they intend to return to as soon as the campaign is over. Ethically, I wouldn’t want that person compromised at all by thinking about what appointment they might get or whether they’ll land business in the state afterwards. For some campaigns I followed in 2010, there were clearly some other interests at work. There were managers who had a job in mind for after the campaign and that was apparent. Sometimes that can really impact decisions.
C&E: Last cycle, we saw party switches, recounts, Sharron Angle. Do you prepare for the unexpected?
Kelly: I think it’s what you try to do in your “free” moments as a manger—just try to game those things out. The best strategic teams are the ones that have conversations like that or that treat a campaign like one of those old choose your adventure books. We tried to have those conversations on the Malloy campaign. We had a lot of different flow charts and tried to map out scenarios. I don’t think a lot of campaigns plot out next steps very well.
Hall: It’s not only anticipating, but it’s also asking, “What is the outcome we want and how do we affect that outcome?” Sharron Angle winning the primary didn’t happen just by chance. We worked really hard. We went after Sue Lowden every day for five months. And sure, a lot of things happened and we got lucky on a couple of things, but at the end of the day we did everything we could to affect the outcome of that primary because we knew we wanted to run against Angle.
C&E: What lessons came out of the 2010 cycle for all of you?
Harris: I don’t know if this was a personal lesson, but hopefully it at least validated campaign managers everywhere of both parties: campaigns really do matter. There’s this big academic school of thought that says you can take the unemployment rate and combine it with three other factors to predict the outcome of a campaign. That wasn’t the case last year. Campaigns mattered in Nevada and Colorado and in Pennsylvania, too.
Kelly: Money matters, but we ran against two self-funders and were heavily outspent. You don’t need to match someone dollar for dollar at every stage of the campaign. We saw that if you can run a very tight campaign and you’ve got the money to get your side of the story out, you still have a shot.
Kanevsky: In Charlie’s race, we were outspent 2 to 1. It teaches you the importance of message discipline and resource discipline. I think a lot of Democratic campaigns last cycle probably did everything right and simply didn’t win because of the environment. So campaigns matter and I think Harry Reid is a great example of that.
Hall: I think the biggest change I’ve seen is that it’s no longer adequate to just match yourself up against your opponent. Campaigns are controlling far less of the overall conversation because you have all the outside money. The percentage of the conversation that campaigns own will continue to come down. So it’s not just anticipating what your opponent is going to do, but anticipating what all the outside groups will do and what money is coming in. You need all of that for success.