Since the Tuesday primary election in Texas, all of the post-mortems have focused on the message. Governor Perry found the right message, and found it early; his opponents did not. This magically translated a 20 point deficit into a 21 point victory. In hindsight, it’s obvious Perry would win from the very beginning, so the story goes. Really?
The reality is that it was not at all clear a year ago that Rick Perry would win this race. An anti-incumbent mood and a popular, well-financed, challenger commonly herald the end of many a multi-term officeholder.
But Rick Perry had some things going for him besides an unpopular Democratic administration that he could translate into an anti-Washington message. Over the course of his time in Austin, he has assembled one of the most capable campaign staffs in the history of modern politics. They are experienced and confident, they get along well together, and above all, they are self-critical and want to improve. None of these qualities is common in the typical campaign, where staffers are usually insecure, afraid to admit what they don’t know, and overly-reliant on campaign vendors.
Dave Carney, the campaign’s general consultant, for example, is confident enough to be a skeptic of the claims and traditions of the consulting world. He values hard-headed research over guesswork, having digested Alan Gerber and Donald Green’s Get Out the Vote prior to the 2006 campaign. Intrigued by their randomized experiments on the efficacy of campaign tactics, but wanting more, he called the Yale professors, along with Daron Shaw (University of Texas) and myself, to Austin in 2005. Over a series of months, he called for a series of experiments on messaging, campaign fundraising and various modes of campaign outreach, including direct mail and phone banks. The series of tests generally revealed that impersonal modes of contact, such as direct mail and automated calls, while seemingly inexpensive, were worthless.
Early television ad buys, even multi-million dollar ones, were a waste because they simply didn’t stick given that people were not yet in the market for political information. The returns from direct-mail fundraising efforts, at least in 2006, were modest, at best. Carney and other Perry advisers reasoned that many conventional campaign tactics were being used out of force of habit — because that’s the way campaigns have always been done — but not because they worked. Vendors and media buyers were mostly interested in making money, not in winning campaigns.
Taking these lessons to heart, in 2009 and 2010 they trimmed some of these ineffective strategies out of their campaign toolkit, and moved in a different direction. Based on the mounting evidence for the effectiveness of personal contact, they invested in building a field operation of unprecedented size that would eventually situate nearly 40,000 Perry Home Headquarters locations across the state, each charged with mobilizing a targeted number of voters. This was about ten times the number of volunteers they had activated during the 2006 campaign.
Building on what was learned from the 2008 presidential election, their contacts with supporters and prospects were routed entirely through social media, e-mail, and website updates. To be sure, the jury is still out on just how effective some of these new strategies are — anecdotes abound but experimental tests are still in the works — but some of the old strategies that have been proved ineffective are clearly gone.
Aside from adopting this self-critical posture toward tactics, probably the campaign’s most worthwhile feature has been to cultivate continuous pledge giving on the part of a regular and loyal donor base. To spearhead this effort, Perry has maintained a permanent finance staff of experienced and highly professional fundraisers, led last cycle by Leslie Sullivan and now by Krystle Alvarado, with Sullivan in a consulting role part-time. Apparently Perry cannot only recognize talent when he sees it, but he can keep it around — something Hutchison and many lesser candidates are not known for.
Perry’s finance personnel epitomize the scarce combination of skills required for a first-rate finance shop: exceptional grace, a refined sense for event planning, and an actuary’s facility with numbers. Always Texas natives, they know the donors by name, have an acute sense for etiquette and protocol, and they have learned the intricate balance of budgeting the governor’s time, while maximizing the inflow. While RNC finance operatives apparently go around mocking and dissing their donors, apprentices in the Perry finance shop are hired only if politeness is instinctual.
Going forward, there will be discussion about whether there are any lessons in Perry’s win for other candidates, and by “lessons” pundits will mean takeaways for messaging and issue emphasis. My suggestion is that this campaign has implemented strategies and operated in ways that offer more lessons in campaign organization and tactics than in messaging and policy.
I am not a Texan, but any informed observer can tell you that the Lone Star State possesses a lot of political talent. It can’t be an accident of planetary alignment that Rick Perry is where he is. The unpopularity of President Obama was a gift to the Perry campaign, and incumbency always comes with advantages that can be leveraged to advantage, but this margin of victory could not have been accomplished without an exceptionally competent campaign organization. Could Perry have won using the usual ineffective campaign strategies and mediocre personnel? Perhaps. Could he have won and avoided the runoff, saving $2-3 million? No.
Having just written all of the above, I conclude with the caveat that nobody is too smart to be defeated; campaign organizations are only ever partly in control of elections’ outcomes. Bill White, the Democratic nominee, is a worthy and capable opponent. Winning an unprecedented third term will be a test, likely requiring every ounce of the Perry organization’s exceptional intelligence, skill, and finesse.
– James G. Gimpel is a professor of government at the University of Maryland, College Park.