Monday, April 07, 2008

Penn-ing the next chapter in Democratic consultants

So as I am sure all you political junkies heard this weekend, Mark Penn the chief strategist/pollster of the Hillary Clinton campaign resigned/fired/stepped down sorta. Joe Trippi, who was John Edwards 2008 (and Dean's 2004) campaign strategist hit the nail on the head: "The only real question was, why did it not happen sooner? The conflicts have been a problem for the campaign from the start."

Trippi is referring to the many clients had interests that were at odds with Sen. Clinton's positions, including the Colombian government, which hilariously fired Penn for sure.

Democrats nationally have a lot to hear from Republicans nationally in terms of how to handle consultants. George W. Bush told all of his consultants that they had to quit all of their other clients and focus solely on his campaign. He also demanded a flat fee rather than a commission based ad design/placement/airing. And his previous counterparts wouldn't rehire consultants that lost multiple races.

You would think these are all obvious conditions for any serious candidate for president. Sure if you are a Mike Gravel, you can't be too picky on the terms, but if you are an Obama or Clinton or Edwards or Kerry, you should be able to hold all the cards. They should be fighting to work for you, not the other way around.

Yet in the world of big-time Democratic politics, it has been bizzaro world. All of the consultants get paid a percentage of the ads they put on TV, so obviously they have an interest in suggesting that TV advertising is the way to go. Folks like Penn continue to hock their books and lobby for their other clients while still running a $150M+ campaign. And most bone-headedly, senators running for president fight for the right to have perennial losers like Penn, Shrum, and even Trippi advise them.

Bloggers give just as good advice (if not better) as these clowns do, and we cost nothing, compared to Penn's $6M bill for January alone. Penn's key contributions to Clinton's campaign was to focus on big states on Super Tuesday with the theme of experience/readiness. Meanwhile, Obama focused on the neglected states with the theme of change. Oh and Obama's people spent a significant portion of money on the ground game rather than just TV. Guess who has more delegates, won more states, has a lead in the popular vote, and has tens of millions more to spend for the next ten contests?

Like Bob Shrum, I predict that Mark Penn will become blacklisted from presidential campaigns (maybe even Senate campaigns too). Even the most pro-Clinton supporters--including her own campaign staff--was overjoyed to see Penn go away. If Democrats want to be successful, they need to learn the broader lesson from the Shrum and Penn fiascoes, and not just about the individual consultants.

First, I would suggest canning the very idea of the consultant and focus grouper. The more a candidate listens to these people, the more they sound like a politician that will say or do anything for a vote, rather than a principled person who runs for high office. But if that isn't in the cards, then second, I would give these folks a flat commission with perhaps a bonus for winning by X percent. Third, exclusivity is mandatory. Fourth, broadcast TV has lost its prominence (given cable/satellite/Internet/TiVo) and ad dollars should be spread out and tailored to popular cable channels and programs, as well as the Internet, radio, etc. Fifth, spend the money on GOTV tools and efforts. Obama's campaign took advantage of the pioneering Internet organizing tools developed in 2004 by Dean and Kerry's teams to build crowds, activists, raise money, and contact voters on a personal level. Sixth, don't rehire losers, try to get local consultants/pollsters when running for House/Senate or outsider when running for President. Obama hired Chicago marketing people to design his signs and logos, and it has been a rousing success. Even his consultant technically hails from the windy city. Seventh, based your HQ outside of greater-DC. Location matters not just because of the message it sends, but because you get trapped into conventional thinking in DC, and detached from the rest of the country. Moreover, the rent is usually cheaper and those willing to move out to your HQ are far more committed than those who just commute in to a place in DC.

Ultimately the candidates are responsible for the decisions they make, even if boneheads like Penn and Shrum suggest them. So while Penn had dumb ideas, they were ones that the Clintons agreed with and Penn tweaked his advice and polls to conform with what the Clintons wanted to do anyway. The same goes for John Kerry in 2004 with Shrum.

To me, one of the few ways we can evaluate a presidential candidate's potential as a president is looking at their judgment in running their campaign. The Clintons made some bad choices, and one could argue that other than Obama winning Iowa, his status as the almost-presumptive nominee is more of a product of their screw ups than Obama's brilliant strategy/campaigning. But it still says a lot about the Clintons that they still want to keep Penn in some capacity, and it still says a lot about Obama that he noticed key gaps in the Penn/Clinton strategy and exploited them successfully.

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