Memo to Campaign Managers: It May Be Quitting Time

Posted September 15, 2003 at 3:18pm

Dear friends,

Four years ago this month, then-Vice President Al Gore made a tough decision to shake up and restart his struggling presidential campaign. [IMGCAP(1)]

After Gore spent months being, and acting like, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and running ahead of former Sen. Bill Bradley (N.J.) in national polls, his campaign emerged from the summer of 1999 with a bad case of the blues. To make matters worse, Bradley had begun to catch the eye of activists in Iowa and New Hampshire. Gore understood that in order for the campaign to regain both its political and financial advantages, he had to strike while the “iron was hot.”

The decision to move the campaign’s headquarters to Nashville, Tenn., was more than a wake-up call. It forced Gore to remember why he wanted to be president, and it reminded him that he had to fight for the privilege. It also made the newly installed campaign team work together to lock down the nomination.

Looking back to the fall of 1999, Gore was right to “get the campaign moving again.” In the short term, our campaign got its act together. We put together a winning message that resonated with primary voters, built a dynamic political team to win the crucial early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, and defined our opponent as someone who “did not stay and fight.” We never looked back after the big move.

For many of you, the moment to step up to the plate or move on to something new has finally arrived. Unless your candidate begins to stand out in a large and crowded field that may expand in a couple of days, your campaign will be driven right off the road and into oblivion.

Based on my own experience as a campaign manager, I know that many of you are worried about raising money for the third quarter. Whatever figure you turn in, it’s not enough, so chill out. Everyone knows that the Bush-Cheney re-election committee will rake in every available special-interest dollar from here to the far reaches of the nation.

Granted, additional resources for any Democrat right now will allow your campaign to expand its presence in crucial states like New Mexico, South Carolina, Delaware, Oklahoma, Arizona and Michigan. But, even with new money in the bank, more staff on the ground in those early caucus and primary states, or the ability to give an occasional good speech in New York City or Washington, D.C., some of our major top-tier candidates are slowly fading down to the bottom tier. I can even go so far as to say their campaigns are dying. [IMGCAP(2)]

Most of you are now dying to get attention from left-leaning activists hungry for a change in D.C. Others are dying to attract donors to help defray the costs of early paid advertising, while others are simply dying to draw a crowd at your events or come up with a novel approach to solve old problems such as lack of health care. These campaigns, as many of us would agree, would like to be resuscitated in order to go the distance, but how?

Personally, I am guilty of encouraging many candidates to run because I am still undecided. My old boss’ decision not to run gave the Democratic Party an opening to have a dialogue about its future. But, for those of us who tuned in to last week’s debate and the one before that, we have begun to wonder if it’s quitting time for some of the candidates.

During the next four weeks, think about it. Are you prepared to help your candidates enter into the next stage of the primary season? Let me raise a few questions:

Is your campaign what your candidate envisioned it to be when you decided to toss your hat in the ring? If not, jump ship and endorse someone else for the nomination.

How realistic are your chances of winning the nomination or the presidency in 2004? Polls alone will not determine the eventual winner, but a winning message can help revive a sagging campaign. If you don’t have something to say, why not drop out and spend some quality time with your family?

Can your campaign get on the ballot, as early as Nov. 15, in some key states? Do you have enough volunteers or paid staff to circulate petitions or pay the fees to qualify? If not, go back to your real job.

Will you have enough money to launch both a field team and a media campaign in the early states? What if you get knocked off the ballot for bad signatures? Hey, it happened to the mayor of Washington, D.C.

This is the season to reconsider running for the presidency and to question whether you have some fuel left in your political tank. As much as I enjoyed watching the recent debates, one sponsored by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and PBS and the other by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute and Fox News Channel, some of our candidates are on life support from one event to the other. Sorry, participating in the debates should not and must not become your sole reason for staying in the race.

When the Democratic National Committee convenes next month in D.C., it will be time to discuss imposing a litmus test on candidates to appear on stage. This will spark some fierce debate that may lead some of you to shift gears. I would start by recommending that any candidate who generates 10 percent or more support in national polls gets a seat at the table. Otherwise, stay home and watch the debates like everyone else.

Oh, by the way, next time one of the panelists asks you a “Generation X” style question about your favorite song, I would advise you to choose a song from one of the best rock ’n’ roll groups of all times — The Beatles. The song may well be “Hello, Goodbye.”