Requiem For the Outsider Campaign

Maggie Haberman at Politico published an interesting post-mortem on the Bachmann campaign yesterday.  The campaign is not quite dead yet, but will be pushing into Monty Python Black Knight levels of bravado if she doesn’t notch a surprisingly strong score in Iowa, or enjoy a very swift reversal of fortune in the big early primaries.  Haberman writes:

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. For a time, she looked like the real deal — a candidate who would be a viable conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, and who could do damage to the front-runner coming out of Iowa.

Instead, her campaign slowly disintegrated. There was a bitter split with a coterie of top advisers, a slew of campaign trail missteps and claims of unfair treatment. Contributions dried up and the candidate herself never quite developed a message. Once Rick Perry stole her thunder after her Ames Straw Poll win, she retreated to a familiar comfort zone of Fox News and conservative radio appearances.

“I think to a certain extent it was a smoke and mirrors operation,” said her former campaign manager, Ed Rollins. “The debates kept her in it and the end of the day that’s not the substance [of a campaign]…We got her to a point where people looked at her [but], just as other candidates found out, once the spotlight goes on you, you better be prepared.”

Hmmm.  I think I can see an important lesson right there: don’t hire campaign managers who end up running around and calling your campaign a “smoke and mirrors operation.” 

Monte Shaw, an Iowa GOP state central committee member who is neutral in the primary, echoed that sentiment.

“She peaked so soon after getting in the race that she didn’t have the infrastructure in place to lock down the goodwill that she had at that time,” said Shaw, adding that at the time she was still seeing crushes of people at her events, she should have had a field staff in place to take advantage of it by, among other things, signing up names. Instead, he said, “she was still trying to hire field staff.”

Many of the other problems diagnosed with the Bachmann campaign boil down to matters of “infrastructure,” including a fund-raising apparatus that relied too heavily upon direct mail, and some occasionally prickly interactions with the Republican political world:

Conservative radio host Steve Deace, who is neutral in the race but who has described Michele Bachmann as the most consistent conservative in her record, expressed surprise at her past few weeks — noting that she’d accused Bob Vander Plaats of trying to get her to drop out (which he denied), accused Sorenson of being bought off (which he denied), a super PAC that had backed her switched to Mitt Romney, and she asserted that no pastors have asked her to get out of the race (though a prominent one said he did).

“She’s accused three people of lying, all of whom say what she says is not true…When she won the Ames Straw Poll, she had just spent the summer [hitting] House Speaker John Boehner for cutting deals with Obama on the debt ceiling,” said Deace, adding that instead of focusing on the payroll tax cut fight that the House GOP lost, Bachmann chose to talk about “all these sideshows, which make great copy for blogs but which don’t impact any voters. They don’t create new jobs.”

There are some similarities here with the Herman Cain flameout.  Cain’s campaign was often clumsy, and seemed ill-prepared to handle some rather dicey developments that they should have seen coming.  Whatever else one can say about the sexual harassment stuff – even if you don’t believe there’s a shred of truth to any of it – there’s no getting around the fact that the Cain campaign had ample warning to prepare (and would have had even more time, if Cain’s team had done him the favor of working him over with the kind of oppo research his rivals and Team Obama were bound to employ.)  They nevertheless managed to act completely flummoxed by events.

Even leaving the scandal-mongering aside, Cain’s campaign never seemed prepared to handle his meteoric rise in the polls, and make the best of his moments in the spotlight.  This led some to speculate that his entire campaign had the air of a glorified book tour, rather than a serious run at the White House.  Similar criticism has occasionally been leveled at the Newt Gingrich campaign.

What these campaigns had in common was the “outsider” vibe, which is not so much a question of the candidate coming from totally outside of Washington.  Cain did, but Bachmann is a sitting member of Congress, and Gingrich has all sorts of history inside the Beltway.  Rather, they’re running campaigns beyond the operating parameters of the usual political machinery.  Their strategies are heavily premised – almost entirely so, in the case of Gingrich and Cain – upon building support through outstanding debate performances.  Organization would be assembled in response to demand for their candidacies.

This would strike many people as the best way to choose a candidate.  The contestants make their appeal to us during the debates, we decide we’re interested, and our support prompts the campaigns to blossom.  Isn’t that better than career politicians with national ambitions spending years, and millions of dollars, building interstate machines… before the voters even know if they’re truly interested?

The problem is that modern campaigns move at a blistering pace, fueled by high-octane electronic media.  It’s tough to slap together a first-class nationwide team after the race is already well under way, and the candidate got their chance to knock everybody’s socks off.  Also, nationwide campaigns are complex endeavors, as can be seen from the Virginia ballot stumbles.  Each individual state offers some tricky political terrain to master.

It would be cynical to conclude that outsider campaigns and long-shot bids by excellent candidates with limited resources are impossible, but in the future, it will pay to remember the difficulties of running that way.  The personal attributes of each candidate obviously make a big difference, but even the best “outsider” should be ready to take advantage of flash-bulb breaks… followed by the intense pressure the rest of the field will surely apply against a sudden new front-runner. 


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