On a hot day last spring, Fred Davis found himself sitting on Iowa Republican Steve King’s back porch. The Hollywood-based media consultant had flown to Omaha, Neb., rented a car and driven to western Iowa to assess taking him on as a client.
He knew the outspoken congressman was in a tough fight for his seat. President Obama was pouring money into the state. King was facing a popular challenger in Christie Vilsack, Iowa’s former first lady. And it didn’t help that he had a growing reputation as a party firebrand, which was how Davis had first been introduced to him before making the trip out from Los Angeles.
“I was expecting to report in that Steve King was just like those [videos] and we probably wouldn’t be handling the campaign,” he recalls.
There’s often tension in the candidate-consultant relationship, particularly when the consultant has to ask his client to try something new. But Davis found King was nothing like his out-of-context online video reel. They got along well and King was receptive to his strategic advice.
“Steve enjoys a colorful phrase or two, but that was not the type of campaign we ran. We went back to the basics, with Steve totally on board,” says Davis. “The most important decision of his campaign was to, not by any stretch of the imagination, disavow his principles of being a fairly far-right congressman; but instead to run on what kind of person he is—40 years, same house, same wife. He was part of the community. He pulled himself up by his bootstraps.”
King’s bio includes failed businesses and near financial ruin, the kind of circumstantial “lying low” that his party now faces. As the GOP goes through a prolonged session of hand wringing, consultants have an important role to play. Ask Davis what that is, and he’ll say help the candidate to find a new path. It’s time to stop relying knee-jerk on what’s worked in the past. This will undoubtedly require the paid help be willing to risk their retainer by telling a client something he or she might not want to hear. But for Davis, that’s the price of progress.
“There are two types of consultants,” he says. “One fills orders and simply makes the ads that the client and campaign team want; the other contributes to that discussion, is an important player at the table and can say, ‘Hey, yes, that’s the way it’s been done in the past, but look what happened in 2012 and is that what we want to repeat?’”
Falling short in a presidential cycle inevitably sparks a period of soul searching in the losing party. In 1988, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis’s crushing defeat at the hands George H. W. Bush left Democrats wondering if they’d ever win a national election again. Of course, that period of self-reflection didn’t linger too far into the 1990s, but then returned vengefully after 2004 when Sen. John Kerry failed to stop an unpopular President George W. Bush from securing a second term.
At the moment, it’s the shortcomings of another former Massachusetts governor that are on Republicans’ minds. Mitt Romney received the lowest share of the fast-growing Latino vote than any Republican nominee has in the last three election cycles. His numbers for women and Asian voters weren’t far behind. Romney’s campaign was out-fought on the ground and out-thought on TV.
“The Republican brand is dying, many of our strategists are incompetent, and we still design campaigns to prevail in the America of 25 years ago,” Mike Murphy wrote in Time Magazine. Murphy, who declined to be interviewed for this article, isn’t exactly winning plaudits from his colleagues for speaking out.
“Everybody always focuses on the consultants, but what about the candidates?” asks Jim Innocenzi, a Virginia-based media consultant with Sandler-Innocenzi. “There are some really flawed candidates out there, and I think at the end of the day—win or lose—the candidates have to take some share of the blame or the credit.”
Never mind the candidates. Look at what the party is advocating, says veteran pollster Whit Ayres. “This is a much deeper problem which involves the worn-out business model that Republicans are presenting to the nation,” he says. “We have a business model that sold very well for 25 years, and like any good business you adapt to the changing times and the changing market. That’s the challenge we face right now— adapt the business model that we have to a new electorate.”
Ayres isn’t alone in advocating for a change of ideas. As 2013 dawned, Georgia Rep. Tom Price (R) called for “redstate leadership” to be installed on Capitol Hill, a gauntlet thrown down in front of his House bosses, who hail from Ohio and Virginia. It points to a divide within the party that some have likened to a civil war, not simply because of the heated internal debate but also because the GOP seems to be fracturing along a metaphoric Mason-Dixon line.
Sure, there’s always a bit of rancor between friends on the Hill, but it’s not just the odd office holder or consultant signaling concern with the GOP’s current direction. It’s notable that the presidential campaign was run by Boston-based strategists, and yet Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus is turning to several prominent Southerners for a way forward. More Latino support? Better online targeting? Better candidates? Priebus wants answers, and he’s formed a five-person exploratory committee to execute the search.
Notably, of the fve asked to come up with recommendations, only former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer could be called a Yankee. Zori Fonalledas is a Puerto Rico national committeewoman, Glenn McCall holds the same position for South Carolina and strategist Sally Bradshaw is based in Florida. The last of Priebus’s quintuplet, Henry Barbour, who consulted for Romney last cycle, is ensconced in Mississippi. But he wasn’t about to characterize the informal committee’s work as a kind of consultant cull.
“The Republican Party’s a bottom-up party, [and] people are going to run their campaigns the way they want to. I don’t think anybody in Washington should try to tell them who to hire unless somebody in Washington’s paying for it,” says Barbour, sounding a lot like his Uncle Haley. “That said, our candidates can be better trained, [and] if consultants have a track record of winning primaries and losing generals there’s nothing wrong with that being part of their Google record, if you will.”
Barbour recognizes there’s a problem. “It doesn’t do any good to have somebody win the primary, and the day they won the primary is the day the race is just about over,” he says. “I think we got a lot of people, myself included, who know a thing or two about campaigns. Let’s put together a smart, executable plan that’s going to help us win elections.”
It’s clear those running the party aren’t looking for old ideas. But if new blood is needed to come up with new tactics, where does it come from? Does it come from Washington or the local ranks? Wayne Johnson, a Sacramento-based media consultant, says it’s time for Washington to invest more control with the locals and loosen the purse strings.
“That’s always been a sore spot with consultants in the field—money never seems to get out of the Beltway,” he says. “I think there’s a strong argument that there needs to be some serious decentralization in the next cycle.”
The amount of money spent this year by Super PACs dwarfed the amounts spent by candidates, particularly those running for House. In places such as California, the Super PAC spots served to link local Republicans to their national colleagues—an anathema to voters in the Golden State.
“In most places, the candidate campaign was a minor player in the election, and that has to change. They didn’t have the ability to run and shoot with the opposition,” Johnson says. “I love Karl [Rove] and he deserves all the credit in the world, but the folks who were producing these ads just didn’t have the bandwidth” to deal with 80 competitive races.
Of the 10 most expensive Senate races in 2012, only three were won by the candidate who received the most spending support by outside groups, according to a report from the Campaign Finance Institute. In House races that cost more than $2 million, the candidate with the outside spending advantage lost 21 times and won 16 times.
“It’s a bad model,” says Johnson. “We have to make sure there isn’t a Super PAC out there spending $200 or $500 million dollars. The money needs to go to the candidates. It needs to go to the campaigns.”
Phil Young has been on both ends of the top-down approach. He spent eight years in Washington, D.C. running national issue campaigns and working in the Reagan White House, before returning home to Nebraska to launch his own firm. Last cycle, he helped Deb Fischer go from state lawmaker to Senator-elect, most recently serving in her kitchen cabinet while she successfully maneuvered past two well-financed opponents in the primary—one of whom was the “unofficial favorite” of Washington: Jon Bruning, the state’s attorney general.
“A committee may not overtly back a certain candidate, but the word, the buzz, when the committee’s people are talking to other lobbyists or PACs who may call up and say, ‘What’s the deal in Nebraska or what’s the deal in Nevada?’ There’s a sort of an unofficial favorite,” Young says.
Fischer’s primary win was a surprise to many in Washington, but Young says anyone could see it coming from the ground in Nebraska. Still, the National Republican Senatorial Committee once again found itself having to establish a new working relationship with a candidate who won in an upset.
“When that unofficial favorite gets dumped by the actual voters in the state, then all of a sudden you have the committee scrambling to figure out what to do,” Young says. “Then it becomes a challenge for the committee to kiss and make up, or they may want to wash their hands of them altogether.”
Young says there’s a bias in Washington against candidates with local campaign teams who haven’t come to the capital and made the rounds. But now that he’s no longer D.C.-based Young realizes that having a Washington address doesn’t mean a firm knows the local terrain, and on the flip side having a local area code “doesn’t mean they’re stupid.”
“Local consultants can probably do more to maybe establish working relationships with [committee] people so that you’re a bit more of a known entity,” he says. “But at the same time I do think it has to be an attitude change at the national level so the response is not, ‘You’ve got to pick somebody from our list, if you want our support.’”
At the presidential level, the problem isn’t as apparent because the party’s nominee will always have leverage to pick his or her own campaign team. Stuart Stevens, the principal consultant on the Romney campaign, has received his share of criticism for some of the campaign’s missteps. But he insists that campaign 2012 was a collaborative consulting effort.
“Throughout the Romney race I reached out to different consultants for advice and often received good suggestions from various consultants who weren’t formally working for the campaign,” he said in an email to C&E. “It was all very helpful. Since the race, I think it’s been very positive and frankly supportive.”
Stevens also disputed the suggestion that Super PACs took the microphone out of the hands of the candidates, despite the fact the Romney campaign was outspent by issue groups by more than $200 million, according to one estimate.
“We didn’t create [Super PACs] and we can’t make [Super PACs] go away,” he wrote. “The greatest advantage the Obama campaign had resulted from their blowing up federal financing for the general election. That gave them four years and the power of the presidency to raise over a billion dollars. That’s how they outspent the Romney campaign 2-to-1 on television.”
”Next cycle,” Stevens added, “there won’t be an incumbent president with four years to raise a billion dollars. This should be less of a factor.”
Another popular explanation for the GOP’s losses last cycle is technical. The Democrats have pulled ahead in technology, the argument goes, and left their rivals scrambling with antiquated, buggy systems. Think ORCA’s maiden voyage crash on Election Day. But ask online strategists and they’ll say the GOP isn’t far behind, although it’s clear that more of the party’s money and focus need to be shifted onto the Web.
“For any given campaign the TV budget is anywhere from 60 to 70 percent [of the total spent]. You shift that 10-15 percent online, think of how different this election cycle would have looked with that,” says Jen Harrington, an online strategist with the Prosper Group.
Democrats don’t have a technical edge, insists Harrington, despite the Obama campaign’s perceived proficiency with social media and online profiling that have left the impression Republicans lag behind in everything from online tools to TV ad testing. “The technology is out there. It’s just about who applies it in the political realm better,” she says.
For Harrington, it’s not a question of reevaluating the pitch Republicans make to voters. “The message hasn’t changed, only how it’s delivered,” she says. “We need to be shifting budgets to where our voters and our donors are.”
The party’s financiers and consulting class are at odds with the base of the party, which has been on a streak of nominating candidates that even mainstream Republicans say fall short. Just look at the spending by outside groups.
American Crossroads spent more than $104 million in 2012, but none of the Republicans it spent money in support of won. Two of its opposed candidates did lose, which means it got a 1.29 percent return on its investment, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a non-partisan group that tracks campaign spending.
“As a party, we have put more emphasis and more value on a consultant than we have on a grassroots member of our organization,” says Andrew Hemingway, who headed up Newt Gingrich’s New Hampshire presidential primary campaign. “We need to start to listen to these people again. Technology underlies all of that.”
Hemingway is a candidate for the state party’s chairmanship, reversing the well-trodden party staffer-to-consultant track. That gives him a leg up, he tells party voters. “We need to get those tools in the hands of our activists.”
“We claim that we’re a grassroots party,” he says, disputing Barbour’s view of the “bottom-up” GOP. “We claim that we’re against the centralization of power. We fight those things but we run our party, perhaps, from a top-down perspective.”
The notion that Republicans need a more collaborative approach isn’t novel. In fact, it’s already been borne out. After leaving Iowa that unseasonably warm day, Fred Davis incorporated King’s suggestions into an ad campaign that his firm crafted around the congressman’s biography.
“I don’t think we had one negative ad in the primary or the general,” says Davis, whose firm Strategic Perception also made ads for Deb Fischer during the Nebraska Senate race.
When all the votes were counted King won by more than eight points. “I didn’t think that he needed to be anything other than what he really was,” says Davis. “Lo and behold, the voters agreed.”
Sean J. Miller is a contributing editor to Campaigns & Elections magazine.