Skip to content
The ugly truths about campaign strategy
POLITICAL consultant Mark Penn came in for a lot of outrage last week when a March 2007 strategy memo for Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign surfaced. In it, Penn suggested exploiting Barack Obama's "multicultural, diverse" boyhood as a "very strong weakness." According to Penn, Obama's ties to "basic American values and culture are at best limited."
"Astonishing," wrote Joshua Green for Atlantic Online, which published the memo (and other internal campaign documents). But how astonishing? Inside a high-stakes campaign, what's fair game and what works? We asked veteran strategists -- none of them working on the 2008 campaign -- from both sides of the partisan divide.
The temptation is obvious: Polling tells us that voters are more likely to remember a negative message than a positive one. And yet the danger is substantial: Those same voters tend to think less of candidates who deliver a negative message. So the question that every candidate faces is this one: Is the probable backlash worth the potential payoff?
It's clear from Mark Penn's memo that he understood the potential repercussions for his candidate of an all-out attack on his opponent's values and upbringing, so he advocated an emphasis on Hillary Clinton's "American-ness" instead. As much as the campaign didn't consistently follow Penn's advice to target Obama's "weakness," it did occasionally stress that she was born, in Penn's words, in "the middle of America to the middle class in the middle of the last century." Clinton was hardly the first presidential candidate in our history to try to "own 'American,' " so the contrast -- without the attack -- might have been too subtle for many voters.
Most campaigns try to have it both ways -- deliver the negative message but protect the candidate from that fallout. (One common technique is for criticism to be offered by a surrogate.) But the best protection against voter backlash is to frame a negative message in the context of policy differences rather than focusing on personal characteristics.
Dan Schnur, national communications director for John McCain's 2000 presidential bid and a veteran of four presidential and three California gubernatorial GOP campaigns, is the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.
There are three ugly truths about electoral politics today. The first, and the ugliest of all, is that elections are much more often about the destruction of the opposition than the building of ideas. But it doesn't have to be that way.
In 1994, I was invited to participate in the shaping of the "Contract with America," designed to win a new majority for Republicans in Congress. My most significant contribution was to insist -- successfully -- that the document avoid all criticisms of all political opponents. All of my polling and focus groups screamed the same conclusion: Don't go negative.
Not that negative doesn't work, but in this case, I had to deliver unhappy Republicans and independents in order for the GOP to win big. Those unhappy voters, many of whom had voted for Ross Perot in 1992, told me they emphatically needed a reason to vote for the Republicans, not just a reason to vote against the Democrats -- otherwise, they'd stay home.
Other GOP consultants insisted on a much more partisan "bang the opponent" strategy. And so my efforts to remove the words "Bill Clinton" and "Democrats" from the Contract required the direct intervention of House Republican leader Newt Gingrich, who sent me -- in person -- to the Republican National Committee offices to hand-scrub the overt partisanship out of the document.
Which leads me to the second ugly electoral truth: There is nothing more dangerous than a strategist (or strategists) spurned. Just 10 days before the 1994 GOP landslide, I was condemned by two rival pollsters who said publicly that my "bad advice could cost us the majority." They were afraid to attack Gingrich, so I became the target.
And that, in a backhanded way, illustrates the final ugly truth about electoral politics: The campaign is an accurate reflection of the candidate. Those who leaked Penn's memo (and the rest of the Clinton campaign documents) won't attack Clinton directly. But just as Gingrich was responsible for the successful fortunes of the Contract in 1994, it's Clinton, not her strategists, who deserves the blame for losing the nomination.
Frank Luntz's political clients have included Rudolph W. Giuliani and Michael R. Bloomberg. He is the author of the just-revised paperback, "Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear."
Ah, the mysterious and arcane ways of campaign consultants.
Every campaign strategist in a major race tries to stretch the envelope in thinking about how to maximize his or her candidate's strengths and how to capitalize on the weaknesses of the opponent. Not to do so is political malpractice.
But my basic rule of thumb is: Don't put it on paper (or, in this day and age, don't e-mail it, post it or leave it hanging around in a Word document). I have had numerous clients who insisted that I write an elaborate "campaign plan," laying out in exquisite detail the ingenious ways in which I intended to carry them to victory. In every case I have declined to do so, because such documents are just begging to be leaked and twisted.
In the 1998 California governor's race, Republican nominee Dan Lungren's campaign faxed the scripts of their final series of ads to a targeted list of donors in hopes of goosing the fundraising to pay for them. A mailroom clerk -- no doubt a Democrat -- in one law firm that received the documents sent them to the Gray Davis campaign, which I was managing. This breach allowed us the luxury of knowing in advance what Lungren's final spot mix would be, so we calibrated our own endgame spots accordingly. And we beat him 58% to 38%.
It's not just about overall strategies, either. Don't put anything in writing you wouldn't want to see on the front page of the newspaper. And don't say or do anything you don't want to watch on YouTube 10 minutes later. Campaign strategy is still best left to internal discussions and conversations that can't be handed to a reporter or a blogger. If oral versions do get out, there is some plausible deniability.
Penn not only used offensive and -- especially for a Democrat -- politically incorrect descriptions of Obama, he violated common sense. It makes me wonder if that grand-strategy memo wasn't "penned" with the primary purpose of making Penn himself look brilliant after the fact. Welcome to after the fact, Mark.
Garry South is a longtime Democratic strategist and commentator who has managed or played leading roles in campaigns from president to city council over the last 35 years.