by Benjamin J. Kirby
"The economy, stupid! ...And don't forget health care!"
-- A small white board in the Clinton/Gore 1992 "War Room" in the old Gazette building in Little Rock, Arkansas.
You've read a lot of grousing on this blog about how the last election was just terrible, an awful thing not so much about a winner and a loser as about a guy who lost less.
Don't believe it, at least not too much. A lot of good came out of Election 2012. We learned a lot. For starters, we learned that money doesn't buy everything -- including the presidency. This is a good thing. We learned that people aren't simply entitled to their own facts. This is a very good thing.
We learned that somehow, here in America, people can find a way to see through the opaque sheen of cynicism and hypocrisy and vote in their best interest.
I'm glad for it.
We also learned about a new kind of campaign. And a new way to lead them.
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For many years, all I ever wanted to be was a campaign manager. I was there for the 1992 Clinton glory days in the War Room -- albeit at the far-flung fringes (about as far as you could get and still be in the campaign, in fact). But I often got to see the leader of what amounted to a cutting-edge, politically insurgent campaign: James Carville.
He was loud, abrasive, weird, and outwardly emotional. And brilliant.
And a world-class story-teller.
I will never know -- and neither will you -- but I have a sneaking suspicion the only reason Carville was ever successful in the business of politics was that he was smarter than most everyone else, and he could tell a good story. I can see Clinton sitting in a room in the Governor's Mansion, talking to Carville, listening to him tell stories, seeing if he could listen to stories, too. I bet they spent hours and hours just telling stories.
It was the antithesis of the George H. W. Bush campaign, which was a corporate-run affair. Tiers. Hierarchies. Chains of command. Bottlenecks.
What was the first Bush Presidency about? What story did he have to tell?
Clinton's was about putting people first. It was about the economy, stupid. Health care, too. It was about believing, like he did, in a place called hope.
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Two things I read this year got me thinking about this.
The first was the wonderful, must-read New Yorker piece by Jill Lepore entitled "The Lie Factory" which chronicles the first campaign consultancy founded by the rather ominous sounding (and looking) Leone Baxter and Clem Whitaker in 1933.
Political consulting is often thought of as an offshoot of the advertising industry, but closer to the truth is that the advertising industry began as a form of political consulting. As the political scientist Stanley Kelley once explained, when modern advertising began, the big clients were just as interested in advancing a political agenda as a commercial one. Monopolies like Standard Oil and DuPont looked bad: they looked greedy and ruthless and, in the case of DuPont, which made munitions, sinister. They therefore hired advertising firms to sell the public on the idea of the large corporation, and, not incidentally, to advance pro-business legislation. It’s this kind of thing that Sinclair was talking about when he said that American history was a battle between business and democracy, and, “So far,” he wrote, “Big Business has won every skirmish.”
Like most California Republicans, Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter, who were the publicists for the California League Against Sinclairism, were horrified at the prospect of Sinclair in the governor’s office.* They had to work fast. They were hired just two months before the election by George Hatfield, the candidate for lieutenant governor on a Republican ticket headed by the incumbent governor, Frank Merriam, but, mostly, they were hired to destroy Sinclair. They began by locking themselves in a room for three days with everything he had ever written. “Upton was beaten,” Whitaker later said, “because he had written books.”
It gets better. Well, worse, but you get the idea.
My take-away was that Ms. Baxter and Mr. Whitaker basically figured out that you win if you frame a story around something.
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You know, my first -- and last -- experience as a campaign manager was a dismal failure. I am an okay story-teller (this post notwithstanding). But I'm terrible at raising money, and I am even worse at the data pieces.
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Well, here you have it: the Obama Campaign has delivered for us a new campaign paradigm... and I'm not sure too many people even noticed. From October of 2012, the previous link:
Over the last year and a half at the campaign's Chicago headquarters, a team of almost 100 data scientists, developers, engineers, analysts, and old-school hackers have been transforming the way politicians acquire data—and what they do with it. They're building a new kind of Chicago machine, one aimed at processing unprecedented amounts of information and leveraging it to generate money, volunteers, and, ultimately, votes.
That's right. Micro-targeting and data. Not it's not about telling a story -- it's about telling a story you care about.
It is about the only story that matters: the one that will make you vote for a candidate.
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As it happens, James Carville wasn't even the Campaign Manager in 1992 -- he was a senior consultant. The Campaign Manager was a man named David Wilhelm, an attorney from Chicago. He is known for his expertise in the areas of economic development and party organizing (he was head of the DNC). One of the quotes attributed to him is: "The flip-side of a capital gap is a market opportunity."
Facts. Funny things, aren't they?
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Guys like me -- guys slightly better than average at telling a story, spinning a yarn -- are officially dinosaurs, at least with respect to campaigns. The guys in the dark basements next to the servers and dimly lit screens are the front-office now. Hell, they are the War Room.
Guys like me?
Hard to say. And it's hard to say that campaigns changing from marketing-driven enterprises to data-driven enterprises is entirely bad.
And things change. They always do.
So when the data nerds are kicked to the curb for... whatever the next thing will be, maybe some of us old guys will still be around.
We will buy them a drink at the bar, sit them down, tell them about white boards and the good old days.
It'll be a good story.