Sen. John McCain’s campaign for president has had a tough go of it in recent weeks. A poor first quarter fundraising performance, sagging poll numbers (an L.A. Times poll showed that McCain had slid to 12% nationally), and a press corps that has turned on him because of his support of the war in Iraq.
So how did the McCain’s campaign power through two horrible weeks of news without imploding? Their method, based on public accounts and my own discussions with key McCain operatives and consultants, could serve as a “How To” guide for other campaigns, which will inevitably face bad weeks themselves as the campaign continues. Here are my thoughts on the lessons learned:
- Rule #1: Remember, It’s a Long Ball Game. Anyone who has worked on a political campaign knows that losing streaks are inevitable. Heck, even the New York Yankees endure losing streaks – sometimes for weeks. But they always somehow end up at, or near, the top of their division when the playoffs come around. And conversely, in the words of Tom Petty, “even the losers (insert Baltimore Orioles – my team) get lucky sometimes.”
Despite what baseball aficionados (who watch every game – even in March) may think, it really doesn’t matter who is on top in March; what matters is where you are in the standings when the season ends. Politics is similar. Every campaign – even the good ones – have their ups and downs (remember the time George W. Bush couldn’t name several world leaders – and let’s not forget that he lost New Hampshire to John McCain, as well (talk about a bad week) …
The point is that no team is as good as they look when they are winning, and no team is as bad as they look when they are losing. The great coaches and players don’t display emotions; they don’t celebrate too much when they win, and they don’t get too low when they lose.
Seasoned teams know this, and that keeps them from panicking when they hit a losing streak. Led by Brian Jones, the McCain communications team kept a level-head -- even when things were looking especially bad. They still have a long way to go, but when other campaigns might have collapsed – or made fatal gaffes – they stayed calm.
- Rule #2: Face Facts. The first step toward recovery is acceptance. You can have the best players in the league, but a losing team cannot expect to get their act together until they accept the fact that things aren’t going well. By admitting that his fundraising was “disappointing,” McCain demonstrated that he is at least willing to face reality.
And in today’s modern media world, acceptance often means public acknowledgement. In this regard, McCain has been quick to admit mistakes. For example, when he misspoke about “unarmed humvees” in Iraq, he didn’t gloss over the mistake; he admitted that he misspoke on 60 Minutes.
In this political environment -- where President Bush has been criticized for rarely admitting mistakes -- some voters may find McCain’s candor especially refreshing.
- Rule #3: Fix the Problem. As Albert Einstein famously quipped: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” The point is that acknowledging a problem isn’t enough – you’ve got to take steps to fix the problem, as well.
The McCain campaign didn’t merely acknowledge his campaign failed to meet fundraising expectations – they made the risky decision to announce a very public re-launch of its operations (this move was risky because it allowed his critics to speculate that the “wheels were coming off.”)
In this case, McCain has chosen to go to the bullpen and bring in a couple of seasoned “aces”: Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas and former congressman Tom Loeffler.
While McCain is a Navy man, in this case, he is following the motto of the Marines: “Adapt and overcome.”
- Rule #4: Stand for Something. When the bad news began to hit, McCain didn’t back down on Iraq – he stiffened his resolve. It would have been easy for McCain to long for the halcyon days of 2000 – when the press loved him – and to do whatever he had to do to get their adoration back (in this case, that would have required his criticizing Bush on Iraq). But McCain chose to deliver a series of speeches where he makes the case for supporting the war in Iraq (more eloquently than Bush has, I might add). As a result, conservative opinion leaders, such as Brit Hume, have given McCain credit for his courageous stand on the war. By standing up for something – especially something unpopular – he has earned the grudging respect of many conservatives who otherwise wouldn’t give him a second look.
- Rule #5: In Today’s World, New Media Matters. As a blogger, I would be remiss if I didn’t include a plug for the importance of the new media in all of this.
While the mainstream media has largely abandoned McCain, conservative bloggers, such as Rich Lowry and Jonah Goldberg, have stepped up to defend him. Additionally, blogs like Powerline and Captain’s Quarters have posted favorable things these last two weeks. Arguably, these voices are more important in a Republican Primary, anyway. (Thought: I’ve long suspected that McCain’s popularity with the establishment media hurt him with conservatives. Could it be that the media’s abandoning McCain is helping him with conservative bloggers?) By reaching out to conservative bloggers, McCain was able to have, at least, some positive news coming out during the two bad weeks.
It remains to be seen whether or not McCain has completely turned the corner (in a recent CNN poll, McCain showed significant gains, but these numbers assume Fred Thompson and/or Newt Gingrich were in the race), but one thing is for sure: He has survived two tough weeks – and lived to fight another day.
In the immortal words of Crash Davis (from the movie Bull Durham):
"Some days you win. Some days you lose. And some days, it rains."
(That’s a baseball proverb, by the way.)