The campaign industry has changed dramatically in a single cycle because of COVID-19. Now with November in sight, we’re all wondering what tactics and strategies will be holdovers from 2020. To help better frame that big question, I looked back at what’s actually changed over the past three decades, as the campaign industry has matured, and what’s stayed the same. Here’s what I found.
What’s the same:
Confidence is a commodity.
Our business is making decisions and implementing them. The most important thing is to develop self-confidence, people are always second-guessing you and you must stand by your convictions. So many campaigns not only confuse motion for progress but even confuse conversation for progress.
As an operative or a consultant, your enemy is distraction, and jaw-boning. It’s always easier to discuss decisions than implement them, and whatever decision you make is going to be challenged by “armchair quarterbacks” activists, spouses, kitchen cabinet members, other consultants, you name it. Your job is to make sure your trust with the candidate is rock solid, and that you keep driving the plan forward.
Campaigns still hinge on strategy, tactics, and operations.
Everything in a campaign should be able to neatly fit into one of these three boxes. Everyone in management should be very clear on the strategic objectives, including the message. These objectives should be disseminated in a handful of tactical objects, which are then again disseminated into hundreds of operational objectives.
Too often campaigns focus exclusively on paid media, and how that can best be microtargeted — ignoring phone banks, door knockers, etc. which can all be equally microtargeted.
A good consultant can make the difference.
No matter how good the local team is, hopefully not ever the candidate’s family, friend, or spouse — even a veteran operative, constantly surrounded by daily operations will lose sight of the overall strategic goals by striving for operational excellence. The focus on whether you had more volunteers at the county fair than your opponent will start to overshadow the TV ad strategy. There’s a reason offensive coordinators sit in skyboxes at football games, not on the sidelines.
Consultants still draw from their experience in the field.
My advice to young operatives is simple: Manage every type of race you can manage, try to hold every different position you can on a campaign.
The only way I can teach a campaign to run a phone bank is because I’ve run hundreds of them. The only way I can teach a campaign to implement a fundraising system is because I’ve raised millions of dollars for political candidates. I can’t tell a campaign how to get press coverage if I’ve never made hours and hours of follow up calls to reporters begging them to write about my press release. If I haven’t done it, I can't teach it or advise.
The roles of manager and consultant.
The combination of manager/ and consultant into one role, sometimes known as the “Strong Manager,” is now increasingly rare. This has had a positive impact, allowing lower level campaigns to afford professional consultants.
The electability of moderate candidates and the importance of the base.
Before the dawn of the 2000s, the majority of the country was somewhat moderate, so moderates won general elections. Today, for myriad reasons, our politics is tribal, and more contests than ever hinge on base turnout.
The need to rely on “your gut.”
There will always be an instinctual element to running campaigns, but the time you have to rely on instinct before confirmation from data is less and less. Now you can even draw data points from your digital performance to confirm or dispel your conclusions.
Similarly, the major strategic themes of the campaign were generally created by a few experienced members of the campaign team, sometimes aided by polling. Compared to today analytical modeling and big data have given us the ability to make micro-decisions, with more data supporting.
Rory McShane is a political and media consultant, the principal of McShane LLC a Las Vegas and Washington, D.C. based political consulting and media firm.