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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The McCain Mechanics for the General Election

For Republicans, Bush-Cheney 2004 is the model of a successful presidential campaign. The operation was run from top-to-bottom from an office in Arlington, Virginia. There was Karl Rove, who was the chief strategist. There was Ken Mehlman , who was the campaign manager. Beneath them, there were consultants, deputies, communications staff, and field teams. The political department divided the country into six regions, and assigned managers to each. The press department divided the country into five regions, and assigned spokespersons for each. There were staffers on the ground in all of the battleground states, but the campaign centralized everything.
John McCain’s campaign is also headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, but if this report from Marc Ambinder is accurate, his campaign is planning on approaching the 2008 race in a way that is profoundly different:

Instead of funneling authority through a few central figures at campaign headquarters in Arlington, VA, plans call for it to be dispersed to up to ten “regional campaign managers” – spread at satellite campaign offices throughout the country…The regional managers would have the authority to hire and fire, to adapt field programs to fit the needs of the states in their region. Unlike regional political directors, they would be part of the senior staff table at the campaign’s Arlington headquarters. Message and media, for the most part, would still be run through Arlington.

The closest model for this type of campaign is that of John Kerry in 2004. He centralized his message and media operations from a campaign office at McPherson Square, inside the District, then outsourced much of his field operation to 527s like America Coming Together. Those political organizations were then left to organize voter registration drives and GOTV in swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, and by law, they were completely autonomous from the Kerry campaign, with contact between the two entities strictly disallowed. This entire 2004 strategy, however, was born out of necessity. The 527s could take unlimited donations from big donors, while Kerry could not. Had his advisers been given GOP-like resources, they likely would have chosen to run the campaign in a way similar to that of Mehlman and Rove.
And Democrats won’t be taking the Kerry route in 2008.
Sen. Clinton’s campaign is centrally organized — perhaps to an even greater degree than that of Bush/Cheney 04. Until she went broke in January, her fundraising operation was dominated by appeals to big money donors. Her senior staff is filled with veteran Democratic party insiders. Even after serious errors in political judgment, campaign strategy and message is developed in large part by its pollster — Mark Penn. Once the vision for the campaign is mapped out, field operatives like Ace Smith and Michael Whouley are dispatched to states, Mandy Grunwald develops the ads, and press staffers like Howard Wolfson deliver the talking points.
Obama’s campaign is something else entirely — with energy and organization pushing from the bottom up. He, of course, employs strategist and consultants, field operatives and press staff. But much of the support and enthusiasm for his candidacy begins directly with voters, and his electoral strategy is founded on the idea of empowering their efforts. The fundraising operation is predicated on giving individuals the ability to tap into their personal networks of friends and family to raise small dollar donations in large numbers. Right now, the volunteer created Yes We Can video is featured on the front page of barackobama.com. And in an even more direct example, the campaign set up wikis for its volunteers in California and Texas as a way to distribute information and resources to precinct captains.
Ambinder calls the McCain strategy decentralization, but it’s not. Splitting the field strategy into ten satellite campaigns will in effect create ten top-down, regional campaigns for president. It’s a tactical response that might give the GOP some added mechanical flexibility.
In 8 months, we will know whether that was brilliant or foolish, but it is definitely not a real change in strategy.

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