The recent flameout of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s presidential campaign has touched off a debate among Republican consultants over burn rate and whether field is a better early investment than TV.
The conventional wisdom is that Walker, who had some 90 staff spread across Wisconsin and the early primary states, grew his campaign too fast and should have scaled up gradually. The early exit of a former contender has others calling for campaigns to ditch the traditional role of treasurer or compliance firm in favor of a full-time CFO who can raise a warning flag on spending.
But some digital consultants take issue with that idea of budget moderation, noting that an early investment in field and digital is what’s needed to win any race.
“The more I hear about political campaign ‘burn rates,’ the sillier this sounds. No prize for having the most money left in the bank & losing,” Steve Johnston, an account executive at Google who works with campaigns tweeted Oct. 12.
That prompted Ian Patrick Hines, a digital consultant who’s worked with Rick Santorum and the Florida GOP, to write a piece labeling cash on hand a “vanity metric.”
“The truth is that I don’t care about your campaign’s ‘burn rate,’” wrote Hines, who founded The Beag Co. “It’s a vanity metric that the media focuses on because it’s easy to grok. But campaigns aren’t businesses, and the goal isn’t profit. The goal is victory.”
Hines added a caveat to his spend-it-if-you-got-it argument.
“If you’re spending what you’re raising on smart, forward-thinking investments in critical campaign infrastructure, more power to you,” he wrote. “If you’re blowing it on non-essential things like expensive hotels and branded tour buses, that’s a leading indicator of deeper problems within a campaign. But either way, don’t just sit on the money in order to get a positive press story because while you do your opponent — the one with the huge ‘burn rate’ — is laying the foundation to beat you.”
Those running the Walker campaign have said something similar. “I don’t think we grew too quickly,” Rick Wiley, Walker’s campaign manager, told the Washington Post. “I think every person on this campaign served a specific role to make sure the governor was ready.”
He added: “We didn’t have a spending problem. We had a revenue problem.”
Wiley also said that the campaign was aware it was running out of cash and was looking for places to cut before the Wisconsin governor’s poor debate performance in California led to his exiting the race. The warning bells, according to the Post, started going off for Walker’s campaign in August. But could they have known sooner? Sure, if they’d done proper budget projections, according to Tim Saler, a vice president at the GOP firm Grassroots Targeting.
"One of the challenges that campaigns face is that get hot and they have a big surge of money that comes in. Often the challenge is that doing nothing is doing something,” he told C&E. “It's actually a strategic decision. If you had a plan that was good in the first place you ought to be able to be patient and stick with it.”
Saler said the budgeting process should be the same whether it's a presidential or a small campaign.
"You just look at your fundraising plan, you look at what you absolutely have to have on your infrastructure. You look at how it lines up with your goal – winning the primary or the general," he said. "If things get hot, I don't think you adjust your fundraising projections to assume you're going to continue to get hot. If you have extra money that's a lot better problem to deal with than having less."
Still, there’s pressure growing on Republican candidates to make early investments, particularly in field staff. Pollster Patrick Ruffini noted in a recent piece that “no Republican candidate has more than 10 full-time staff in any early voting state.”
While the GOP presidential field is investing in contrast ads against businessman Donald Trump, he points out that Hillary Clinton has at least 90 paid staff in Iowa while Bernie Sanders has some 50. “Failing to invest in staff will make adjusting to the very different terrain of the general election a major challenge for Republicans once the Trump freak show ends,” Ruffini wrote Oct. 10 in Politico.
But Saler questioned whether investing in field would pay off. “We need to focus on persuasion,” he said. “If we have a race to see who can turn out their base, in most states Democrats have more voters than we do. We can turn out 80 percent while they turn out 75 percent, and we still get outnumbered — and lose unaffiliated voters anyway. That's the untold story of 2012 and more field staff wouldn't have fixed it.”
Now, is it possible to have a robust field staff and a steady budget? It depends on if you hire the right people, two consultants say.
Bradley Crate, whose firm Red Curve Solutions worked with Walker, said it's challenging for a compliance firm to sound the alarm on a campaign’s budget if they're only involved piecemeal.
He wouldn't comment specifically about the Walker campaign because his firm only worked on compliance and not the treasury function of the governor's effort. Still, he noted: “If there’s a compliance firm just doing compliance, they get the data much later. Nothing is there in real time. There’s a need for people to look at this in a real-time fashion."
He said that if a campaign utilized his firm's full services the manager and candidate would be warned if there was a danger of flaming out. "We do projections and budget assumptions for our clients," he said. “But if people don’t utilize it, they’re committing to a different structure.”
Andrew Abdel-Malik, a GOP digital media consultant, believes the roles of compliance and treasury should be merged into a campaign CFO role. “The problem really becomes there lacks a lot of talent with the political skill set and the budgeting skill set to be able to go out there and talk to the campaign manager or department heads and say, ‘Here’s what happening and here’s an actual concern,’” he said.
Talented young operatives are ushered through the ranks of communications, digital or field, but rarely shepherded up the backroom ladder, said Abdel-Malik, who does national media research, planning and placement at OnMessage Inc.
“We just don’t do that on the budgeting side. Other than large committees or presidentials, no one affords that” CFO position, he said. “Campaigns need to take that more seriously and grow that role.