Elizabeth Warren’s sound strategy

By Tim Pierce — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22534937

To external observers, political campaigns seem to revolve around big issues, the horserace, and big news.

To those of us who have worked on political campaigns, we know that campaigns are actually about hard work and drudgery.

The press loves to report on big stories, so they look for those. But the real news in political campaigns happens in the day-to-day grind of building up an organization that will propel you to victory on election day. As one of my political mentors once said, what wins campaigns is discipline.

The best run campaigns start out with a focused plan, and then implement that plan with precision. For example, in a local race, you would advise the candidate to spend his or her time going door-to-door — in other words meeting voters — and raising money for the media blast right before election day. Succeeding in these efforts takes time and hard work, not big headlines.

The irony is that electing a President is much more like running for a local office than running a national campaign, at least initially. Right now, we have a field of 21 (!!!) candidates for the Democratic nomination. That’s more candidates than can be seated on the debate stage at once. My guess is that several will drop out over time, perhaps targeting a swing Senate district rather than the Presidency. As a result, expect John Hickenlooper to run for Senate in Colorado and Julian Castro or Beto O’Rourke to run in Texas, and potential candidate Steve Bullock to run in Montana.

With that kind of field, nobody will be able to break through the noise, with the possible exceptions of Biden and Sanders. So candidates like Elizabeth Warren need to find a way to build up support that will bring them into contention. From what I have seen, Warren is doing exactly that.

In developing her strategy, Warren is relying upon the successful approach taken by another Democratic Senator from Massachusetts who ran for President: John Kerry. Back in 2003, Kerry was well on his way to also-ran status with his campaign being eclipsed by the much more media-savvy Howard Dean and the much more well known Dick Gephardt. In late 2003, Kerry decided to move virtually his entire campaign to Iowa and essentially lived there for two months, spending all his time meeting voters and even going door-to-door, just like a local candidate. The result: he won Iowa.

The next big test would be New Hampshire. Given that Kerry represented a neighboring state — Massachusetts — he was in good stead there. Of course, he did have Vermont Governor Howard Dean in the race, but much of New Hampshire watches Boston TV, virtually none of it watches Vermont TV.

Similarly, Warren just won an election for U.S. Senator in Massachusetts by a wide margin, and her opponent Bernie Sanders represents Vermont. Clearly, this year has a very similar dynamic to 2004.

Unlike Kerry, Warren isn’t waiting for her campaign to virtually implode before she focuses her efforts on Iowa. According to the New York Times, she has been building a massive Iowa organization with multiple offices and over 50 staff on the ground. By far, she has made the greatest commitment of any Democratic candidate, and such organizations make a difference in small, rural states like Iowa which hold a complicated nomination process, a caucus.

Certainly, some of Warren’s actions as a candidate have concerned me. Her handling of the DNA results regarding her Native American heritage was a fiasco that will dog her throughout the campaign. And it was totally unnecessary. Similarly, she might come to regret her decision not to take large contributions, although her ability to transfer over $10 million from her Senate campaign committee has certainly blunted that decision’s effect.

Nevertheless, her singular focus on policy has differentiated her from the other candidates. She has an impressive background, and her liberal credentials are without comparison — something that matters deeply to the Democratic activists who will decide the nomination. It is not surprising that such a disciplined and thoughtful candidate would be developing such an effective campaign operation Team Warren.

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Mike is an Assistant Professor of Management for Legal and Ethical Studies at Oakland U. Mike combines his scholarship with practical experience in politics.

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