The making of the candidate
Local campaign managers and consultants on what it takes to get into office
Stand, for a moment, in another person’s shoes.
It is 1990. You are assisting with a campaign for lieutenant governor. It is the afternoon of the Sunday of the Labor Day weekend before the primary election. You get a phone call. The private plane carrying your candidate, Sue Wagner, and Bob Seale, candidate for treasurer, crashed outside Fallon. Everyone was injured. That’s all you know.
Immediately, your thoughts go to the injured, and later, the dead. You rush to the hospital. You are relieved to hear that your candidate, a popular state senator, is alive, although badly hurt. Her campaign manager was also injured.
But, after the rush of the initial 24 hours, when you held four press conferences to assure the voters your candidate would recover, you realize that there is a primary election in less than 24 hours and a general election to follow, and she’s unable to campaign.
What do you do?
If you are campaign consultant Jim Denton, you go to work. Elected officials from around the state turn out to endorse candidate Wagner. There’s some campaign footage shot earlier to make commercials. Your candidate wins the primary and then the general.
What do you do? You do whatever the hell it takes to help your candidate win, that’s what you do.
Welcome to the world of the political consultant.
It’s a mysterious world for most of us. In our imaginations, it’s populated by slick hucksters who move in a shadowy political realm, making backroom deals, straightening candidates’ ties, designing push polls—just like the guys on The West Wing.
So what does a political consultant do? Anything the candidate needs. That includes scheduling speeches, writing speeches, public appearances and meet-and-greets; producing commercials or ads, buying media or working with the public relations group that will buy the media; coaching candidates on issues if necessary, appearance and “message;” conducting records research, figuring out who the likely voter is, and plain old, ear-to-the-ground gossiping. And don’t forget about fundraising—often the consultant knows who gives what kind of resource to what kind of candidate, be it volunteer time, endorsements or cold, hard cash.
Consultants are generally divided into three types: on-staff consultants, such as a salaried campaign manager; those paid a fee without the expectation of full-time work; and, finally, volunteer consultants who help for the sheer joy of being part of the machine. One thing is true about all consultants: at their core, they are political junkies.
The thing campaign consultants really bring to the war room table is their knowledge of the political landscape and experience with elections—the arcane knowledge of when to do what to whom.
It is true that in smaller races paid consultants might be done without. But then, come the days before the primary on Sept. 7, or even the general election on Nov. 2, a candidate may need an ace up his sleeve. And who might that ace be?
Enter the consultants
We’ve all heard about these kingmakers, the people who work behind the scenes to make candidates’ eyes sparkle, dimples dimple and hair blow charmingly on the most windless of days. Folks such as Karl Rove, James Carville and Dick Morris have reached some sort of national-celebrity status either through Machiavellian effectiveness, pit bull personality or capacity for screwing up.
On a local level, most consultants prefer to work behind the scenes. Voters may not know such names as Chris Barrett, Jim Denton, Tiffany Frisch or Tom Clark. They may not remember Bill Martin (full disclosure: Bill Martin was general manager of this newspaper in 1995-96 and publisher of Nevada Weekly prior to that). There are other political consultants around town—too many to include everyone. For the purposes of this story, the RN&R is intentionally avoiding the names of current candidates, as the mention could be construed as an endorsement.
Chris Barrett, 44, of Innerwest Advertising and Public Relations, works in a large, airy office on Court Street with a beautiful view of downtown Reno. He’s of average height, with blondish hair combed back, chiseled features, radiant eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses and a ready smile. Sometimes he buttons the top button of his golf shirt. Good guy, but you can never tell quite what he’s thinking. You’d recognize his work, though. Remember the mayoral election in 2002?
Bob Cashell declared his candidacy, and the incumbent mayor, Jeff Griffin, ran like a schoolgirl from a spider, dropping the race like a bag of Mapes bricks. “It’s time” proclaimed the soon-to-be mayor’s signs. It’s time, said Mayor Jeff, to hit the road. While Barrett wouldn’t take any credit for this, he was Cashell’s campaign manager.
In the past, Barrett has worked in one capacity or another with some of the top dogs in Nevada politics: Dick Bryan, Jim Santini, Paul Laxalt, Barbara Vucanovich. He first worked with Cashell on the University Board of Regents race back in 1978. He worked with him on the lieutenant governor’s race in 1982. He’ll probably work with him on the next governor’s race, but Barrett didn’t say anything about that.
He, like most consultants, says candidates find consultants on a word-of-mouth basis, talking to successful candidates, just being active in the political community. Some conduct interviews.
“We’re not in the phonebook under political consultants—at least I’m not,” he said, chuckling.
Tiffany Frisch, 39, of PR Concepts, and Tom Clark, 32, of Tom Clark Consulting, often work together to promote candidates. Frisch has medium length brown hair, and her laser-blue eyes are charmingly set off with a hot-pink fuzzy sweater. Clark wears a goatee, short hair and and a well-pressed, cornflower-blue shirt. They headed up Dwight Dortch’s campaign in the 2002 election. Frisch has led every one of Maurice Washington’s races, initially coming out of nowhere in 1995 to defeat an entrenched liberal Democrat. Clark came out of R&R Partners, one of the eminent political consulting firms in Reno.
The post-boomer pair have different strengths, with Frisch focusing on a campaign’s human element and Clark paying particular attention to strategy. He said assisting with the 1998 Yes, Yes for Kids campaign, the $170 million bond for six new Washoe County schools, produced some of his finest moments in the political arena.
Jim Denton, 50, of Jim Denton Associates, has been involved in Nevada politics longer than most folks have lived here. This election, he’s spearheading one of the more solid citizen initiatives—at least, it made the ballot without going to court first. His favorite campaign, or maybe his most challenging campaign, was when Sue Wagner was in the plane crash.
“I didn’t have a candidate who had the ability to campaign for the rest of the election,” he said from a cell phone as he rushed from a meeting to the Reno-Tahoe International Airport. “It raised my profile significantly.” Denton is also Congressman Jim Gibbons campaign consultant.
Bill Martin is a speechwriter for Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and in charge of the Texas AG’s public-outreach program. He’s out of the political consulting business, so he can be less guarded in his answers to bring in a fun perspective. He’s got the bona fides, too. He started in the consulting business with John Brodeur in 1981. He handled most of former six-term U.S. Congress-woman from Nevada Barbara Vucanovich’s campaigns starting in 1982, but he takes particular glee in Connie Steinheimer’s successful race for district judge against seated judge Lew Carnahan. She ran as an anti-establishment candidate against a widely respected judge—and won.
“Pissed him off, too,” said Martin.
I’ve got an issue with that
Everybody says it, but nobody does it: This year, I’m going to pick my candidates based on the issues.
There are reasons for the failure. Pick an issue, say “growth,” one of the hottest issues in this year’s election. According to most consultants, while the voters and the candidates define the issues, an issue like “growth” will fizzle in your eight-second sound bite on the evening news.
Clark says the secret is not to take on the big issue, but to break it down so it can be more easily digested by the voting populace.
“Growth is a big, big issue,” the goateed Clark says. “In our world, it’s five or six small issues. You break those down into who is going to care about transportation, who’s going to care about public safety, who is going to care about infrastructure improvement, or water or those kinds of things. You simplify it in the sense that whether you are at work, reading the newspaper or watching TV, you get that message.”
It’s called “messaging” in the political parlance, and the consultants help candidates winnow issues down, perhaps alert the candidate to new issues, maybe solidify the candidate’s rhetoric when discussing difficult topics.
Barrett is adept at cutting the Gordian knot. While he might deny the oversimplification, the message he promotes for many of his candidates is “leadership.” It worked with Cashell, when the City Council was spending more time backbiting than it was gathering leases for downtown redevelopment. Leadership was the issue in that campaign, and he claims it is an issue in this campaign.
“I think people want to pick up the paper and see their city is moving forward,” he said. “It’s being taken care of. Their tax dollars are being spent in a responsible manner. They don’t want to read that the city of Sparks and Washoe County are fighting over who’s supposed to do what or here comes another annexation. That’s telling me there’s no leadership.”
Many people would call that a “growth” issue. But growth is incredibly complex; it’s commuting, infrastructure, water availability, air pollution. “Leadership” is something folks can wrap their head around—all apologies to Monica Lewinsky.
“You have to begin with the assumption that the voters have the limited ability to comprehend a lot of issues,” says Martin from the Texas AG’s office. “It’s just a fact of life. We live in the USA Today, MTV generation. People like things in short pieces, small bites. The first thing you have to do is identify two or three issues that you want to talk about and then stick to them. You don’t want to go into too much detail about them, either. That’s the other problematic thing about this whole process. Somebody may say, ‘Social Security is a big issue,’ but nobody is going to sit down and read a 50-page position paper on Social Security.”
Got an image problem?
Think those candidates you see on the TV were born knowing whether to wear a blue tie or a silver belt buckle or whether they can eat their barbecued chicken with their fingers? Sure they were, and Harry Reid hangs his own signs at intersections on West McCarran Boulevard.
OK, maybe the candidate does decide how much advice he will take from a consultant, but it would be a pretty incompetent consultant who didn’t at least steer the candidate clear of picking his ears with his car keys.
“If you left a consultant to their own devices, they’d do a Pygmalion routine with some candidates—mold them like clay,” said Martin—not that he ever did any such thing. “The problem that you run into, and this is what’s pretty much made me a cynic on politics in general, is that everybody talks about lofty ideals like running on the issues, but what it comes right down to is ultimately how well you [the voter] like somebody. So, as a result, you’ve got to make a candidate likable.”
Denton says that while some candidates are naturals, some need a little grooming.
“My best advice to candidates has always been to be yourself, that’s No. 1,” he said. “No. 2 is to dress like you are approaching a job interview when you are talking to voters because that’s what essentially you are doing.”
Yes, says Martin, be who you are—unless you are particularly unsophisticated.
“Down here, the weather is always warm. One of the staples of advice for candidates is, ‘Don’t wear short-sleeved shirts.’ Long-sleeved shirts look more dignified. Well, that may not be what the person is, but that’s what they have to do because it fits the image. In Nevada, boots always work, cowboy clothes. You dress down for the occasion. Or dress up for the occasion. Sometimes in Nevada, it’s harder to get somebody to dress down.”
Of course, even in the world of political conventional wisdom, there are mavericks.
“I don’t believe in that at all,” said Frisch, frowning and adjusting her pink sweater. “I believe that candidates should be who they are, and if the voters don’t like them, then the voters don’t like them. I don’t believe you should change someone’s appearance. They are better off running as the person they are on their philosophies and values and the issue rather than what they look like or how they dress.”
My esteemed wife-beating opponent is running a negative campaign
Ever wonder why campaigns turn nasty?
“If you’re behind, you go negative,” says Barrett. “But what is negative? If it’s factual, why is it negative? If this person did this and did that, and the person is denying it, there’s a disservice to the public here. Let’s get it out there.”
In fact, file this advice under “conventional wisdom": Candidates go negative when they are losing.
“People don’t tend to go negative when they’re winning,” said Denton. “A recent example: the President’s campaign spent some $15-20 million in the spring right after Kerry had clinched the nomination, running negative spots about John Kerry, the flip-flop stuff. The polling that was released afterward showed that neither one of them had made any significant inroads into the other’s support.”
Denton illustrated that there are caveats. It seems in recent elections, national and local, negative campaigns can backfire.
“If you do go negative, you go negative on issues,” Clark said. “You never go negative on personal stuff. You have to be able to base it in fact, especially if you are running against an incumbent who has the name ID, and you know their voting record [might hurt them].”
“Everybody complains about negative campaigning, but the fact is, it works,” Martin emphasized. “It always works. As long as it works, candidates will keep doing it.”
Winning isn’t everything. Yeah, right.
So political consultants and managers don’t define the issues, don’t groom the candidates and don’t engage in negative campaigns (when they’re winning). What do they do?
They bring experience and knowledge of the political landscape. They know the unwritten scheduling of elections. They can tell you the best organizations to belong to—if you declare a political party, it is strongly advised that you belong to it—but there’s also the Rotary and the chambers of commerce.
“I don’t know if they have to belong to all these groups, but they have to understand where each group is coming from,” Frisch said. “There are so many. There’s the business side of things. The cultural side of things. The civic side of things. They have to understand where all those groups come from and how they can work together.”
Each of the consultants said he or she will sometimes sit down with the candidates up to a year before the election, but that can go longer. For example, Gov. Kenny Guinn’s first campaign started two years before the election. For unknowns, it may be necessary to get some billboards out to raise name ID even before the close of filing, May 15 (the equivalent of “And they’re off"). If there’s a primary election, the schedule is different than if there is no primary or the opponents are weak.
Few newbie candidates have a clear handle on the ins and outs of winning elections, but there is one piece of advice all the consultants agree on: The candidate has to work at least as hard as the consultant. If a candidate wants to win an election, he or she has got to knock on doors, at this point in the election, spending at least 30 hours a week campaigning.
“What’s it take to win?" asked Clark. "Honestly? Money, message and hard work—the candidate’s hard work."