The Ugly Truths About Campaign Strategy

By Garry South

August 19, 2008

Los Angeles Times

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.

Garry South

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.