With Romney and Obama in dead heat, a campaign manager’s challenge


David Plouffe chats with President Barack Obama backstage at BankUnited Center at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, on Thursday, October 11, 2012. (Nikki Kahn/THE WASHINGTON POST)
October 15, 2012

What’s it like to be managing a presidential campaign with just a few weeks to go? As a manager and adviser to campaigns that ranged from landslides to very close contests, I’ve learned this: A dead heat can be one of the hardest races to help lead.

After the president’s disastrous first debate, the 2012 presidential campaign is now a race that probably goes right down to the wire. The best laid plans may no longer be operative: Barack Obama’s pre-debate lead has diminished in the polls, and Mitt Romney’s strong debate performance has surely given an internal boost to the mood of his campaign. The media narrative has changed to a full-on race, and I believe it will stay that way to the end.

The first thing both campaigns need to do is to take a deep breath. With less than a month to go, anything could happen. What’s critical for both teams is that campaign leaders remain focused on their strategies, nimble when it comes to adjustments and carefully attuned to the inner moods of their staff. Both overconfidence and pessimism are equally dangerous.  

If you’re Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, you need to lock out all outside distractions and criticism. Everyone is going to have an opinion now, and the panic button will be pushed by White House staffers, big donors and the constituency groups you have spent four years trying to cultivate. You have already been assaulted by the mainstream media, even its most liberal voices. Disregard anything they have to say and run your own campaign. All the spin in the world is not going to undo the damage the president did to his own campaign. He has to fix it himself and has two debates to do that. 

A campaign, like any successful organization, is not a democracy. Now is the time for it to become a dictatorship, and not even a benevolent one. As campaign manager, you’re in charge! If Axelrod and Plouffe are your co-pilots, make sure you’re all on the same page. Streamline your decision process—too much consensus building and management by committee will only slow decision-making and muddle your team’s urgent priorities. At this point in the campaign, fewer voices are actually better. Keep the lines of command clear.

Then, re-examine your game plan. Don’t throw it out, but make adjustments. Look at your ads and polling and see what needs to be altered. Quiet down the troops by communicating with them often and candidly. Bad news makes people in an organization nervous, but no communication makes them think things are even worse. 

Finally, evaluate your allies and deal with any potential mutiny among donors, pundits or surrogates who need to be walled off from doing damage to the campaign. Designate a hatchet man to carry out this function. You focus on the big issues—namely, making sure the president has two better debates than he had already. His approach can’t simply be to ‘stay above the fray.’

Meanwhile, if you’re the Romney team, led by campaign manager Matt Rhoades and Stuart Stevens, the strategist and media consultant, throw cold water on your face. You can win this thing! First, however, you need to remain focused and not get overconfident.

All the advice above is applicable to you, too. The difference is your troops are not in panic mode. They may have been a few weeks ago, but now they are euphoric. The second-guessing is over. Mitt hit a home run with the bases loaded and the game is tied in the ninth inning. 

That said, euphoria can be as dangerous as panic. When campaigns start to get cocky, they don’t remain paranoid enough about potential problems. They play it safe and miss opportunities to fight back. For instance, in the Huffington-Feinstein California Senate race I advised in 1994, Michael Huffington, who had built up a lead in the closing weeks, was accused of having an illegal nanny on his payroll. The campaign team was worried about the issue but was lulled into denial by the candidate’s and his wife’s assurances that it wasn’t true. When the story hit the front pages, it torpedoed the race and Feinstein went on to win a close reelection.

The lesson being: If you’re leading the Romney camp, make sure your ads respond to any distortions that are presented by the Obama team. I assume they are going to fire everything in their arsenal—whether it’s a nuclear option or everything in the kitchen sink. Don’t let your campaign get mired in doing nothing but responding to the other side’s charges, though you need to monitor them and make valid judgments about whether or not they are actually doing harm. If they are, don’t hesitate to strike back.

There are strategic things both campaigns will need to keep in mind in order to win, such as getting out the vote, monitoring early voting and controlling the candidates’ time. Where their managers put President Obama and Governor Romney in the closing days and weeks is critically important. Visuals matter, and a campaign with big crowds appears to be winning. Messina and Rhoades will need to make sure the lawyer brigades are lined up, too. Potential legal challenges and recounts are as important as any other element in a modern day campaign.

Still, after having been around presidential campaigns for more than four decades, I know that how the candidate and his staff lead their organizations during the inevitable ups and downs of the final weeks is absolutely critical to winning elections. The wheels always seem to come off during the waning weeks of any campaign, and these two are no exception. Despite nearly four years of planning—and despite this being the most expensive presidential race in history—the election could easily come down to which side makes the last mistake. Chaos may reign. But stability at the top can and will make the difference in who wins and who loses.

Ed Rollins is a Republican strategist and adviser who has served in the administrations of four U.S. presidents and worked on numerous political campaigns. In 1984, he managed President Ronald Reagan's landslide re-election campaign, winning 49 of 50 states.

More from On Leadership:

For Romney and Obama campaigns, stemming the tide of pessimism

Must-read leadership profiles of Paul Ryan

Must-read leadership profiles of Joe Biden

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