Thursday, September 23, 2015
by Reed Galen
Days Until Iowa Caucus: 127
Quote by A Smart Person: “Champagne! In victory, one deserves it. In defeat, one needs it.” – Napoleon Bonaparte
Welcome to the American Singularity.
Why the Singularity?
• The presidential nominating process is one in which everything, large and small, is sucked into its gravitational maw, allowing nothing to escape its grasp as events pass through the campaign cycle’s event horizon.
• There is no more singular political experience on the planet than electing the President of the United States.
• The United States is still the most free, most prosperous and brightest beacon of hope to billions around the world.
Every action and reaction feeds into this black hole of press coverage, donor reactions, voter sentiment and activist opinions. Nothing goes unnoticed and nothing is forgotten. Legions of reporters, bloggers, opposition researchers, trackers, social media monitoring services, vacuum up every last syllable.
Every week we’ll take a look at the campaign as it unfolds, and how events reflect the campaigns, the issues of the day and the country at large. Have a tip, piece of advice or something to add? Email me – email@example.com
American Singularity - Week 27: Seven Things Scott Walker's Campaign Taught Us
Earlier this week, Governor Scott Walker (R-Wisconsin) suspended his campaign for the presidency. On the back of two lackluster debate performances and a series of public misstatements, Walker’s money dried up. The end was inevitable from there. Here are a few thoughts on how the one-time favorite lost his campaign in just 70 days.
The Presidential Campaign Fast Forward Machine
When Scott Walker took the stage at the Freedom Summit in Iowa this past February, few expected that he would give the barn-burning speech that propelled him from likely presidential candidate to front runner in the course of an hour or so. And while the event gave Walker the imprimatur of credibility that all White House aspirants need, neither he nor his team were ready to take on the role of pack-leader. Faced with a sudden crush of attention, every word Walker uttered were given out-sized weight by Republicans and the media. It proved to be too much, too soon.
Still contending with a legislative session at home in Wisconsin, Walker delayed his official entrance into the race until July. But a “campaign in waiting” is not a campaign. There are only so many things it can do and only so many people willing to contribute. By the time of his announcement, the race had changed dramatically and Walker was never able to catch up.
According to Walker’s (now former) campaign manager, Rick Wiley, the original strategy was to play the slow and steady game through the spring and summer, a tack Sen. Marco Rubio has used to his advantage. But if that’s truly the case, why staff up so quickly?
If there was a firm strategic frame in place, why did Walker swing so far to the right so early, when the conservative wing of the party already had a number of prominent and former Iowa winners competing for it? Walker could have tried to straddle the conservatives and the establishment, creating in Iowa and beyond a coalition that could have theoretically been very difficult to defeat.
It was clear, too, from Walker’s inability or unwillingness to stay on message, that he’d desperately needed time as a member of the middle of the presidential primary pack. There also appeared to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the political world as it is 2015. If a candidate takes a position in Iowa, then goes to a fundraiser with a bunch of high-dollar donor and espouses the opposite viewpoint, that dichotomy will be known almost immediately. This further strained the credulity of their decision to court activist primary voters, for whom purity is the first test, and electability a distant second.
Money, Money, Money
Several of the post-mortems already written have noted that Scott Walker didn’t get out of the race because he didn’t have the right message, but because he ran out of money. But the two are inextricably linked. When a candidate’s message stops resonating, donors stop ponying up. A campaign on the verge of insolvency was the byproduct of a poorly executed effort and a candidate unable to perform when it counted most. Walker's manager said they didn't have a spending problem, they had a revenue problem. They had both. The former is his responsiblity. The latter he can blame on others.
Presidential campaigns can burn through cash faster than a 1999 tech startup. The money flies out the door as fast, and in this case, faster than it came in. A fundamental flaw of most campaigns, large and small, is that early success is indicative of a long-term ability to raise money at a breakneck pace. Fundraising ebbs and flows – given events like debates, the number of fundraisers on the calendar or a preponderance of donors to spend August on their yachts in the Mediterranean.
Aside: Wealthy vs. Modest Applies to Presidential Campaigns, Too
By all accounts, Scott Walker has not made a great deal of money during his years in office. He is, like so many of the voters he hoped to court, a solidly middle class American. Like Tim Pawlenty in 2011, Walker and his wife were not willing to go into debt to continue the presidential run.
How different the political world might look if John Kerry (2003), Hillary Clinton (2007-2008) and Mitt Romney (2007-2008) had not been able to draw on personal wealth to either keep their campaigns afloat (Kerry, Clinton) or largely finance its operations (Romney) during their runs.
Honesty is Such A Lonely Word
Money is the gasoline in a campaign’s engine. It is the singular focus of many members of an effort’s senior staff. But too often, neither the staff nor candidate are willing to keep one another honest when it comes to a campaign’s finances. Walker and his wife were reportedly shocked when they learned of the dire state of their bank account. It is doubly interesting that Walker was either uninterested or unbothered by the campaign’s finances given his widely reported role as his own strategist during his races in Wisconsin.
Even if the staff had kept Walker abreast of the dwindling receipts, it is unlikely anyone could have done much about it. Once a campaign has 90 or 100 employees, the overhead hits seven figures a month. And admitting that the org chart is bloated and needs to be trimmed, might well have sped up the process that played itself out this week.
Minding the Store
The planes, motorcades and events that make up presidential campaigns are exciting and heady things. The desire to be near the candidate and retain some semblance of total control is powerful. But it you can’t run a campaign from the road. If you are going to manage a presidential campaign, you must be in the office, most days, sitting in the captain’s chair. Getting on and off airplanes and buses or haggling with an intransigent county chairman makes it impossible to focus on the innumerable tasks that a national campaign must accomplish on a daily basis.
Super PACs Are Terrific
We’ve now seen two prominent governors with well-funded super PACs drop out of the 2016 presidential campaign. Despite the myriad discussions that must take place before a candidate officially announces, as soon as the firewall goes up, the two sides of the effort suffer from strategic amnesia – not know what the other is trying to do.
I would also venture to say that even if Walker’s outside committee, “Unitimidated PAC” had started a vigorous advertising campaign on the governor’s behalf it likely wouldn’t have mattered. Unlike four years ago, where Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich were able to leverage super PAC funding to extend their runs, a large field and minimal earned media attention doesn’t allow for the same dynamic.
It is likely that as we approach the end of a campaign finance reporting period, most of the presidential contenders are going to donors with a history of success at bundling hard-dollars and asking them to redirect their efforts away from the super PAC and to the campaign. Easier said than done. If someone can write a $250,000 check or be tasked with finding 100 friends and family to max out, they’ll likely write the check every time.
The first edition of the American Singularity series was titled Spring Training. What is surprising, now well into September, is how few of the candidates have been prepared to answer the basic questions sure to be asked of them during a presidential run. There is no way to know everything. However, there is a relatively finite number of issues that a reporter is likely to ask about – mostly dependent on the venue of an interview (state or local versus national) and the reputation of the reporter. While “gotcha” questions have been a topic of reporting this year, no one should be surprised by the fact they’re asked.
Scott Walker couldn’t answer questions about birthright citizenship, give the same answer twice on immigration or adequately demonstrate his knowledge of foreign policy issues. Indeed, at times he seemed disinterested in learning what he needed to know. There is an enormous difference between reading a book on a given subject and being able to converse about that topic coherently. But that’s one of the requirements of running for president.
My Nostradamus Moment
Earlier this week I posted a column in IJ Review about what the end of a campaign looks like from the inside. I didn’t realize Gov. Walker would suspend his effort later that day. You can read it here.