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.
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.
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.