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Managing campaign crises

Guest Blogger

Imagine your candidate inadvertently reveals she doesn’t really know what the Constitution says about church and state, or one of the advisors of your male candidate calls his female opponent a whore. A campaign crisis? Well, duh. Crises on the campaign trail can strike unexpectedly at any moment and throw candidate and aides into a tizzy. It has always been so – and this year is no different. R. Sam Garrett, an analyst at the Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, and an adjunct scholar at American University, wondered how campaigns grapple with these sudden upsets. For “Campaign Crises: Detours on the Road to Congress,” Garrett interviewed 80 political consultants, party officials and other electoral professionals involved in races during the early 2000s. His conclusions are relevant in the feisty environment of the current election cycle.

By R. Sam Garrett

Upsets in Senate races from Alaska to Delaware, in the New York gubernatorial contest, and even in the D.C. mayoral race have candidates at all levels and across the political spectrum on guard as election day approaches. Politicians keeping their ears to the ground is nothing new, but journalists and political observers around the country have generally argued that the 2010 election cycle is uniquely chaotic.

Against this backdrop, perhaps individual strategy doesn’t matter much this year. Maybe anti-incumbent sentiment, Tea Party anger or Democratic mobilization to protect their previous gains creates an environment that is more survived than managed.

When given a chance to think and talk at length about their world, however, political professionals say that campaigns can always be managed, even if the outcome is uncertain. Especially late in the race, as is now the case, making the right decisions and maintaining discipline can make the difference between winning and losing.

Rather than viewing the campaign environment as dictating campaign strategy, political professionals argue that strategy must be adapted to the environment. Most would probably tell their colleagues that even if 2010 is unique, there are some general lessons that can be observed when managing campaign crises, which they described as pivotal moments that usually surprise the campaign and cause a fundamental shift in its game plan.

First, even in unpredictable environments, political professionals said, campaigns must concentrate on what can be expected and keep the rest of the organization moving forward. Importantly, this means not only being prepared to defend against crises, but also to try to catch the opposition off-guard.

In short, crises can be both offensive and defensive. In both cases, calm, rational thinking is especially important. Insulating the rest of the campaign from panicky or impulsive decision-making can require segregating experienced strategists from junior staffers. The latter are charged primarily with implementation, while the former usually emphasize big-picture strategic planning.

Strategy can be complicated during trying campaign moments because of the candidates themselves — and their families. Particularly during ethical scandals, candidates and families understandably often want to respond immediately. Although political professionals understand this instinct, they were quick to warn against broadening a crisis by drawing unnecessary attention to the issue and distracting the campaign from the day-to-day tasks that must still be accomplished to keep the lights on and to reinforce existing strengths.

More to the point, though, is that most campaign crises don’t involve scandals at all, despite steady media coverage to the contrary. Rather, political professionals reported that most crises have nothing to do with scandal. For example, Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone’s death in a plane crash days before the 2002 election was a human tragedy that fundamentally reshaped the campaign for all involved. But it involved no ethics issues.

Furthermore, even in Minnesota’s radically changed environment, political professionals reported that some basic crisis-management and strategizing could still occur, and was necessary. Democrats reported that in addition to handling the grim details of notifying families and attending funerals other members of the team turned to exploring questions about finding a new nominee and launching what would be Walter Mondale’s short-lived effort to defeat Norm Coleman. Republicans faced challenges of gauging how to react to the tragedy while not yielding a competitive advantage. Both sides struggled with how to stop and re-start their campaigns.

-- Garrett's views are his own and do not reflect those of the Congressional Research Service.

By Steven E. Levingston  | October 20, 2010; 12:55 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags:  campaign crises; managing political fallout;  
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When I learned that Minnesota was favoring Al Franken for senator over Coleman, I thought the state might want to show some diversity by preferring a Jew. When I learned Coleman was a Jew and a middle class, moderate Republican, I lost all respect for Minnesota. Why they would pick a carpet-bagging, elistist liberal comedian over a homegrown, moderate Jew was beyond me.

I'll go back to Minneapolis to see grandpa's headstone, but then I'm leaving.

Posted by: blasmaic | October 20, 2010 4:36 PM | Report abuse

Christine O'Donnell Performs Live!

Christine O'Donnell educates us about the Constitution through music and dance.

Posted by: SantiagoJJJr | October 21, 2010 11:05 AM | Report abuse

Christine O'Donnell Performs Live!

Christine O'Donnell educates us about the Constitution through music and dance.

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