Clinton’s loyal and low-key campaign manager started his political career at the dump
It took awhile, but Donald Trump finally hit on an insulting caricature for Hillary Clinton’s earnest, 36-year-old campaign manager.
Trump likened Robby Mook this week to the vile compulsive liar that Jon Lovitz played on “Saturday Night Live” decades ago, whose exaggerations about personal achievement and life experience grew increasingly absurd with each utterance. Trump even did a half-decent impression of the character Wednesday while mimicking Mook talking on television about the possibility that Russia tried to help Trump by stealing sensitive Democratic Party emails.
It made for a sharp sound bite. The problem for Trump, though, is that Mook is not nearly so interesting.
Few people who have risen so far, so fast in a presidential campaign are so uncolorful, and for Clinton, that has been a godsend.
Amid all the turmoil that surrounds Clinton’s run and her personal dealings – from the FBI investigating her email to scrutiny of the lucrative speaking fees paid her by Wall Street – one problem that she has not had to deal with is lack of campaign discipline. The speculation early in her run that the Clinton operation would be beset by second-guessing, staff shake-ups and warring factions because, well, it is a Clinton operation, has not come to pass.
Mook, the first openly gay campaign manager for the presidential nominee of a major party, has been key in holding it together. His career success reflects the changing nature of campaigns, in which swashbuckling strategists are becoming less of an asset than disciplined data nerds who can build a loyal and effective campaign operation the way a seasoned Silicon Valley entrepreneur might.
“The idea that your purpose is to shut others out so you are the only one let in [the campaign inner circle], I think, is a mistake,” Mook said of his management style at a breakfast hosted by Politico.
The payoff in terms of loyalty was clear when the campaign managed to keep Clinton’s final choice of running mate, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, from leaking last week before an announcement was made – a feat almost unheard of in modern campaigns.
Mook didn’t learn politics by doing the circuit of Washington internships and low-level staff jobs at campaign headquarters that most aspiring politicos follow these days.
He went to the garbage dump. That’s where Mook lingered to educate himself about the electorate back when he was a student volunteer for local candidates. It proved, he said, a surprisingly effective place to make connections with voters and gain insight you can’t get while walled off in a campaign office.
“Where I grew up in Vermont, there is no municipal garbage removal,” he said. “You have to bring your trash to the dump every weekend. Something like three hours on Saturday morning the entire town goes in. It is actually a very efficient place to do politics. I would go to the garbage dump, get petitions signed, give out literature, talk to voters.”
The child of a physics professor at Dartmouth College, Mook approaches politics with the precision of an academic. Unlike others in Clinton’s orbit during her 2008 run, he did not underestimate the power that data and social networks had to transform politics. When he was just 28, Mook directed Clinton’s primary campaign in Nevada, Ohio and Indiana, and beat Barack Obama in all of them.
The Obama campaign took notice and later recruited Mook for its reelection staff. He would go on to run the Democratic side of the fiercely competitive governor’s race in Virginia in 2013. There, he led the successful effort by Terry McAuliffe to use advanced, data-driven targeting techniques to leverage shifting demographics in Virginia for the most possible votes. The governorship was a big pickup for Democrats at a time the party was losing ground in state and congressional races.
Data are always on Mook’s mind. On Wednesday, he reflected on advice offered by Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, a pioneer in data-driven politics.
“He said tech will change more between the beginning of this cycle and the end of this cycle than it did between 2010 and now,” Mook said. “He is absolutely right. I mean, there are media platforms today that did not exist when we started this campaign. One of the challenges from a campaign management perspective now is how to manage that change, what to embrace and run with and what to just ignore as chatter.”
It’s a starkly different outlook to the science of campaigning taken by Donald Trump, who has suggested he sees data strategists as a kind of snake-oil salesmen.
“By not using their time efficiently with data, [they] are taking votes for granted,” Mook said. “And that is a mistake in my view.”
Though Trump is probably not especially interested in Mook’s advice at the moment, particularly as Mook suggests the GOP nominee may be encouraging foreign governments to commit espionage by urging the Russians to hack and disclose Clinton’s emails, Mook’s allegation was uncharacteristically provocative for a campaign manager who typically avoids putting himself at the center of the news.
But it prompted a characteristic response from Trump, who offered the Jon Lovitz impression.
Follow me: @evanhalper
The view from Sacramento
For reporting and exclusive analysis from bureau chief John Myers, get our California Politics newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.