Memo to Self: Do Not Run for Office
Last month, Eliana Johnson of National Review gained access to a 144-page memo that was prepared by a team of political strategists working for the senate campaign of Michelle Nunn, the Georgia Democrat. Nunn, the daughter of Sam Nunn, the state’s longtime senator, is running against David Perdue, a Republican, to succeed Saxby Chambliss, who is retiring. While I am obviously not smart enough to be a “political strategist” — otherwise I would be paid more — it strikes me as advisable to keep a document like this under wraps, especially when it is so brutally self-critical in places (saying, among other things, that voters might dismiss Michelle Nunn as being a “lightweight,” “too liberal” and “not a ‘real’ Georgian”). Already the document has become fodder for Twitter ridicule and at least one attack ad.
But one campaign’s embarrassment can also yield a windfall of public edification. And the Nunn memo, as it has come to be known in political wiseguy circles, offers a glimpse into the calculations and absurdities that drive modern campaigns. The paper contains no campaign-killing outrages or instances of great malpractice — except that the press got hold of it, and as we learn from the “press plan” section of the memo, “many reporters see their job as getting the candidate to ‘reveal’ what their ‘true’ inclinations” are. And now we have those inclinations in all their glory.
This is not beach reading. Nor is it literature, except in the sense that cringe-worthy corporate jargon is literature. The report tries to coax “Rolodex” into a gerund (“complete the rolodexing process”) and “course correct” into a verb (“we’ll have timely data so we can course correct as we go”). The authors also commit language atrocities like this: “In reality, the list-growth curve may be more ‘spiky,’ especially in the organic category, as we get support from partners with big email lists that add a big chunk of new names all at once.”
The content of the memo is even more dispiriting. I read every word, and my main “takeaway” — as we helpfully summarizing reporters like to say — is that a political campaign today is a soul-killing pursuit and would generate the precise opposite of the “joy in my heart” that Jeb Bush says he would wish to bring to a presidential campaign if he were to undertake one in 2016. (Memo to Jeb: Do not read this memo.) In other words, this document confirms every worst suspicion that people tend to have about campaigns.
Suspicion: Campaigns are about money, money and money.
Confirmation: Yes, yes and yes. The Nunn campaign sets a goal of raising $18 million to $20 million. This is an ambitious target that would require them “to prioritize fund-raising above all else and to focus the candidate’s time on it with relentless intensity.” I was not surprised to read this, but to see it detailed so baldly made me want to bang my (bald) head on a desk with my own relentless intensity. Mario Cuomo clearly did not utter his oft-quoted line about how politicians “campaign in poetry and govern in prose” while envisioning Michelle Nunn (“a fund-raiser’s dream”) spending 80 percent of her time fund-raising in the first quarter of 2014 (as the memo stipulates), 75 percent in the second quarter and 70 percent in the third. What would this look like? “Call time needs to be prioritized, protected and ideally consistently happening every day at regular times if possible,” the memo concludes. At the very least, this would prepare Nunn for the marathon “call time” sessions that senators typically devote large stretches of their “governing” lives to if they ever get to Washington.
Suspicion: Campaigns reduce potential voting constituencies to data points and “affinity groups” that are easily identifiable by their ethnic stereotypes. They are not above pandering to them, especially for fund-raising purposes.
Confirmation: In the lengthy section of the memo titled “campaign finance plan,” the authors break potential cash cows into subherds like trial lawyers, gays and Asians, each of which represents a “huge opportunity” because its members tend to possess “substantial resources.” Jews, too, represent a “tremendous financial opportunity,” according to the memo. But the advisers also caution that Nunn’s level of Jewish support will be contingent on her position on Israel. That position? “TBD.” Oy.
Suspicion: Campaigns are adept at humoring their donors.
Confirmation: Campaigns don’t actually care what donors think, but it behooves the candidate to make them feel special. “If prospective donors feel a stronger overall connection to the campaign, and feel they are respected as a supporter and not just a cash register, they will be more likely to give (and give again).” How is this achieved? By making donors feel like they are “members of the campaign family with an inside view into what’s happening.”
Suspicion: Campaigns believe that large portions of their electorates are simple-minded idiots.
Confirmation: The memo includes a handy calendar of dates that Team Nunn might consider planning excellent activities around. For instance, May would have been a good time for a fun Michelle event around “Jewish-American Heritage Month, National Stroke Awareness Month and National Bike Month.” The campaign was also prepared to reach potential supporters who celebrate Flannery O’Connor’s birthday (March 25), Flag Day (June 14) or the Jewish holiday of Shavuot (began sundown June 3)..
Suspicion: Candidates must drain all spontaneity, whimsy and spur-of-the-moment impulse from their personalities. The sooner they become petrified, on-message cyborgs, the better.
Confirmation: The memo warns that any “slight deviation from the agreed upon message could end up being very damaging to the campaign.” Therefore, the candidate must become rigorously steeped in something called “the Q. and A. document,” a cheat sheet that “contains the rhetorical tools the candidate needs to navigate every politically tricky question” and arrive at a safe, focus-grouped pabulum. But remember, a candidate has to want to be great: “The Q. and A. is only as good as it is internalized by the candidate,” the memo states.
Suspicion: Candidates are right to act like petrified, on-message cyborgs.
Confirmation: Candidates can expect to have every word scrutinized, documented and seized upon for any possible slip-up. According to the memo, the Democratic Party of Georgia will employ a hostile, camera-equipped monitor, or “tracker,” at as many of Perdue’s campaign events as possible. Nunn, too, can expect that some interloper from the opposition will be present at every appearance, in the hope that she will falter for his camera. “This footage is transcribed by the tracker,” the memo says, “and uploaded to a shared server that is accessible by our staff, our media team, and the D.S.C.C.”
Suspicion: Sometimes when a member of a campaign’s communications staff is nice to me, it is not because he likes me as a person; it is because he is trying to manipulate me.
Confirmation: It made me very sad to read one particular portion of the memo. “Being able to interact with the press on the campaign’s terms is the most important way campaigns can guide reporters’ coverage,” the document says. The authors also believe that Nunn’s media team should “leverage relationships” with the press in a way that will help them “kill or muddy” bad stories. So much for love and poetry. But presumably this will also highlight what the authors hail as one of Nunn’s biggest assets — her “authenticity.”
The Nunn Memo