By Ken Feltman
Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas – only I don’t exactly know what they are.
– Lewis Carroll
Surprised that Mitt Romney is headed to the Republican nomination? Surprised that Newt Gingrich is reacting like Captain Ahab chasing the whale? Surprised that Rick Perry seems all hat and no cattle? Surprised that Rick Santorum crash landed in New Hampshire after his excellent showing in Iowa? You are not alone.
Presidential campaigns are not what we read in the papers and watch on television. Presidential campaigns are much more mundane. We get the impression of randomness, of chaos, of debate questions and answers that zap one candidate or another. But the best presidential campaigns are disciplined, very disciplined.
Many people see campaigns as a horse race. Handicappers try to figure which horse has the best bloodlines, among other attributes. But some horses lack the desire to race, a few are skittish and have trouble getting out of the gate, others suffer injuries. No matter how much you know about a horse you never know enough to be sure of your wager. Running for president is not a horse race. Presidential campaigns are more predictable.
Candidates who do the things that must be done have a greater chance to win. Spot them early and you spot the leaders. The candidates who never learn the “unwritten rules” of presidential campaigning, or scoff at them, usually get left beside the road somewhere between Iowa and Super Tuesday. Here are my unwritten rules, compiled after four decades of working in presidential politics.
The early bird gets the worm
One year ago, Sarah Palin was the most talked-about possible Republican candidate. Although Palin had huge success making money and friends by traveling the country and making television appearances with friendly hosts, her presidential campaign was soon becalmed. She lacked the discipline to contact key Republican leaders across the country to ask for support. Perhaps she feared that they would say no. If you want to be president, you must learn to ask for help; the party big shots do not seek out the candidates. They are poobahs waiting to be asked.
Palin’s moment passed. She violated the “early bird” rule: If you want to run, start yesterday and be wherever the media and voters gather. Start before other candidates pick off some of your best supporters, staff and volunteers.
Years ago, I was working with a challenger against a popular Illinois congressman. We asked everyone we could think of to help. We gave them specific assignments. The governor lived in our district and was running for reelection. He was very popular in our district. But he soon started complaining that we were “stealing” his volunteers. We won. He lost.
Shortly after the November 2008 election, Mitt Romney started to let people know that he was running. Supposedly, Rick Perry expressed dismay that some of his strong Texas supporters committed to Romney long before Perry decided to run.
Most of life is showing up
This variation of Woody Allen’s rule is especially true in politics. Once you decide to run, show up where the media and voters are. Romney, Paul and Santorum did. Jon Huntsman decided to skip Iowa and campaign against Romney in New Hampshire. Perry did not like his chances in New Hampshire so he headed to what he hopes are friendlier conditions in South Carolina.
What happened? Iowa sent Rick Santorum to New Hampshire as the designated challengerto Romney. Think his third place finish in New Hampshire puts Huntsman in third place nationally? No, as Huntsman heads to South Carolina, he leaves behind his New Hampshire infrastructure. He must build a South Carolina campaign structures on very little foundation. Romney, Paul and Santorum have been building in South Carolina for some time. Beside that, when asked why he did not contest Iowa, Huntsman quipped that Iowans pick corn while New Hampshire picks presidents. Think Iowans will remember that in 2016 if Huntsman runs again?
Being there at the right time means being there all the time
Tim Pawlenty behaved as if he believed that he could turn his campaign on and off. He wanted time to himself, time to study issues, time to relax. Once the campaign starts, there are no time outs. That is why some potential candidates delay announcing.
A few think they make the rules. Just before the caucuses, Newt Gingrich left Iowa to join his wife for her book signing near their Virginia home. Later, he was spotted grocery shopping near their home instead of meeting voters in Iowa. Gingrich has always had his own priorities and timetable. Kings and despots can get away with that. But it irritates volunteers on the campaign trail. While Gingrich shopped, reporters and voters talked with his competition.
Donald Trump flirted with running. He was never taken seriously by people experienced in presidential politics. A person with Trump’s ego and resources is unlikely to want to meet 30 people for breakfast in a diner in a small town in Iowa. Instead, he may plot bypassing the gauntlet of retail politics through an independent campaign.
If Trump does run as an independent, he will not have honed his campaigning skills the way candidates who slog through countless meetings in the early states polish theirs. Remember Ross Perot? An excellent businessman, he will be remembered as a weird candidate. People like Trump can be spoilers but because they skip the important little things, they are unlikely to be winners.
Asking for money is crucial
Mitt Romney has a fortune but he still asks others to help financially. Anyone who makes a campaign contribution – especially when asked directly by the candidate – tends to stick with that candidate and line up friends to help. Fundraising leads to the next rule:
Early contacts become lasting ones
Some candidates dither and do not make the early contacts. Rick Perry got off to a late and slow start. He did not contact key party officials across the country. He did not reach out to the national media. He has a good staff but, even when he was leading in the polls, he had not put together the infrastructure that a national effort requires. After the learning experience of 2012, he could be ready for 2016 or beyond.
Drafts and brokered conventions are rare and unplanned.
Some people keep hoping that another candidate – a candidate they like – will jump in and sweep to victory. Knights galloping to the rescue usually are dispatched quickly. A brokered convention is so unpredictable that no candidate would think of it as a strategy.
Politicians who wait for a draft invariably wait in vain. In presidential politics as at the local watering hole, the only genuine draft is a beer.
If you want to be president, the tried and true path is through Iowa and New Hampshire. This time, Romney checked off the boxes, efficiently and without fanfare. No other candidate has done as many of the “must do” things. Should we be surprised that Romney is the leader?
With limited resources, Rick Santorum has done his best to check the boxes. Ron Paul has checked them off but has the burden of being a cult-like candidate. They almost never win. The three candidates who did the mundane little things as early as they could and as efficiently as possible have done better than their opponents. Newt Gingrich remarked years ago that he found the details of running a campaign “boring.”
Running for president requires a discipline that reporters cover only when the discipline is lacking. Romney started in 2008 doing those things that successful candidates do. His lead is no surprise. The current nominating system favors the most disciplined candidate.
Interestingly, after President Obama defeated Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination in 2008, several analysts cited his discipline and the surprisingly lack of discipline in the Clinton campaign.