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.