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We recently lost a founding father of the consulting industry. The New York Post eulogized: “Had there been no David Garth, New York would be a far different city today. Thanks in good part to him, it became a much better one.”
That’s quite a tribute, but David Garth was more than a political consultant. In fact, in a multitude of obituaries about him, three labels stood out the most: Genius, legend, kingmaker.
Shortly after my firm, Global Strategy Group, was founded, David made us his “in-house” pollster. His seal of approval bestowed instant credibility for our company. Without him, my firm wouldn’t enjoy half of the success it does today. In honor of his memory, I share these 10 Garth insights with the next generation of consultants.
1. Data is fundamental to every campaign
In 1977, David Garth hired Mark Penn and Doug Schoen for Ed Koch’s campaign, and together they revolutionized political polling by introducing the concept of nightly tracking. From then on, in every campaign he worked on, David not only wanted data, he needed it. Also, putting data in a television ad was unheard of at that time, but David knew instinctively that on-screen data can add credibility for a skeptical electorate.
2. Sometimes the data is wrong
David believed data should be a foundation and guide, but sometimes you need to think beyond it. This is one of the hardest lessons for any pollster to learn, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told clients, “I know this is what the data says, but sometimes the data doesn’t tell the whole story.”
3. It’s the person, not the party
This is the one lesson I never agreed with. Whenever he was hired by a Republican, David would inevitably ask me to work on the campaign with him, and then berate me when I refused. But he worked for those candidates because he honestly thought they’d do the best job. The politicians we help elect make tough, consequential decisions on a daily basis, a fact worth bearing in mind when deciding whose checks you want to cash.
4. Only work for people you like
David was able to pick and choose who he worked for, so he only worked for people he liked. Not only did he think his clients were capable, but he also genuinely enjoyed working for them—it’s what made him passionate about his candidates. I have tried to follow this in my own career. Every time I’ve worked for a candidate I did not enjoy spending time with, I’ve been burned. It’s just not worth it.
5. Only work with people you like
For most campaigns, David was allowed to pick the team. In fact, if you hired him, you probably did so on the condition that he called the shots. Campaigns today are rarely like that, and every team includes other consultants you had no part in hiring. Even so, I try hard to guide campaigns toward teams of consultants who know and like each other, because personal drama is the last thing you want on a 2 a.m. conference call during a crisis.
6. This profession doesn’t have a residency requirement
Many of you don’t live in D.C., but that’s okay because of an explosion in the political consulting industry nationwide. David loved that he could work on campaigns and still live in New York City. As I write this on Amtrak from New York City to D.C., I couldn’t agree more.
7. “Hang a lantern” on problems
In Chris Matthews’ great book, “Hardball,” he argues that candidates should just “hang a lantern on their problems,” meaning they should get ahead of any potential negatives that could come out. David gave this advice for years, becoming famous for helping politicians like John Lindsay in New York City or Tom Bradley in Los Angeles by having them reveal their greatest weakness, not hide from it—a lesson as useful today as it was then.
8. Flattery gets you nowhere; bitter truth earns trust
My wife often says my version of client service is “kicking a candidate while they are on the floor in the fetal position.” A bit harsh, I think, but David taught me candidates respect you more when you tell them the hard truth, without sugar coating. Maybe I learned this one a bit too well.
9. Good candidates are strong leaders, and so are good consultants
David’s voice was renowned—booming, caustic, and unwavering. He taught me that to be a good consultant, candidates need to view you as a leader. You need to command the room, and when giving advice, be definitive. He hated if a pollster wavered. He’d reply, “If I wanted options, I’d go to a Chinese restaurant.”
10. Substituting “fuck” for “the” is always appropriate.
For salty language, political consultants are second only to sailors, and David mastered the art of impactful cursing. These days, all political rhetoric is overly harsh, but David knew a well-placed swear could cut through tension to provide needed gravity, or levity. The phrase he said to me more than any other? “Don’t fuck it up, kid.”
Jefrey Pollock is founding partner and president at Global Strategy Group.
Photo credit: Cori Wells Braun, 1979 NYC