Saturday, December 13, 2008

What the Obama campaign can teach the Republican Party

Lloyd Grove has an interview with Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, some of which is happy horseshit, but some of which is very interesting. Consider this exchange about campaign salaries:

L.G.: How did you discipline salaries and compensation? Because traditionally, if you look at, say, Mark Penn [Hillary Clinton's chief strategist], I don't know how much Mark was pocketing but you see that they had outstanding bills approaching $10 million to him.
D.P.: People on the campaign could not make more than a certain amount -- $12,000 a month. There were salary bands, so there wasn't a lot of eventfulness about what people got paid. If you were a deputy you got paid X, if you were an assistant, you got paid Y. We were very aggressive with our consultants in terms of their piece. From a fiscal management standpoint, Obama was very clear that he did not want to end up with a debt in the primary or the general, so we just planned accordingly. We didn't spend beyond our means.
L.G.: So the highest salary on the campaign was $12,000 a month?
D.P.: Pre-tax, yeah. In other campaigns, they can make a lot more than that, and people working in Senate races and governor's races made a lot more than that.
L.G.: You've made more than that.
D.P.: No doubt, it was a financial sacrifice for many on the campaign, but I think it helped. There wasn't any drama around compensation.
L.G.: What about percentages of ad buys?
D.P.: We had a cap, an aggressive arrangement -
L.G.: What did you cap it at?
D.P.: Well below industry standards.
L.G.: Because arguably, somebody could still get a very handsome fee. Say for the sake of argument, you spent $350 million on advertising. Even a niggling 1 percent of that is $3.5 million.
D.P.: That's why you have caps, so that people can't make more than a certain amount. So that if your spending does increase, their profits don't increase.
L.G.: What was the cap on that?
D.P.: I can't remember -- it differed by firm based on what they were doing. But we made sure to protect ourselves. That ended up being, I think, wise, because we obviously raised a lot of money but the firms did not make more. My view of this is that working on a presidential campaign is obviously arduous but it's a unique opportunity. My view is you shouldn't have to pay market rate for people's services. And that's the general approach, and it seems to have worked out well.

This extraordinarily thrifty approach -- $144,000 as top annual salary in a presidential campaign! -- is something that GOP candidates ought to learn to emulate. Otherwise promising Republican campaigns are routinely bled dry by overspending.

One particularly memorable episode: In late 2006, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore decided to run for president. He made some contacts in Iowa and New Hampshire, got a little bit of cash together, did a solid YouTube video rollout, got some press for slamming "Rudy McRomney" at CPAC. Then, less than two weeks later, it was announced that Gilmore had hired three top campaign consultants plus a deputy campaign manager, and leased the entire 12th floor of an office building in the Virginia suburbs of DC. Four months later, Gilmore was out of the race and, it was learned, his campaign was more than $67,000 in debt: The campaign had raised $182,000 in three months but apparently spent about $250,000 during that time period.

Now, I'm not saying that Gilmore was ever a likely contender, but he could have stayed in the game a few more months if he hadn't let himself be talked into that "Big Dog" style of campaign. Why does a paid staff of four need the entire 12th floor?

That kind of stuff doesn't just happen to little guys. Remember that John McCain was basically broke by late summer 2007 -- his campaign burned through $20 million in the first six months of 2007. It appears obvious that Republican campaign operatives, collectively, have developed some very bad habits. The Republican Party raised $900 million in the 2008 cycle, and what do they have to show for it?


  1. "Consultants" is a buzz term for those hired to "moderate" a seemingly awful conservative into a likeable moderate. Never works and should never be tried. Firstly, conservatives are not awful and or out of touch. It is admittingly difficult to always be up against a media out to get you from day one. But that never stopped the Great Man, Ronald Wilson Reagan from just getting out there day after day, night after night and just talking about the virtues of consevatism and conservative ideas in practice. BTW, THAT is why we love and miss The Gipper, not because we need to bring what he talked about and governed in a different time. But that he talked and governed in such a way that made the conservative idea a timeless one. Also, that is why we LOVE Sarah Palin. Now that she is out from under the thumb of your Crazy Cousin John's "consultants" we will see the real Sarah-and God willing the next president of the United States!

  2. Sounds a lot like civil service. Where I work we have such bands, and it doesn't matter if you are good or bad, you get paid the same within your band. It is the antithesis of a meritocracy. All it results in is requiring more employees to be effective.