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Grading the political campaign manager

David Gura Sep 25, 2014
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In sports, a team’s record is very important. Coaches and managers are judged on how many games they have won and lost. Is the same thing true of campaign managers and consultants?

This week, the Atlanta Braves held a press conference. “We have announced this morning that we have terminated our general manager, Frank Wren,” said John Schuerholz, the team’s president.

That got David Berri’s attention. He’s a sports economist at Southern Utah University.

“They didn’t have that bad of a season,” he says. The team’s record is about .500, and that will keep them out of the postseason. “Why are they firing their general manager? Because the Braves have very high expectations. They expect to compete for a World Series every year.”

Politicians also have high expectations. They also want to win. So, it is surprising to Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, “how little accountability there is, given the amount of money that’s being spent on consultants.” And even if they lose, they continue to get hired.

According to Nyhan, this is because politicians have a hard time evaluating managers and consultants.

“It’s the same kind of problem you face as a patient when you go into the doctor’s office,” he explains. You have to gauge how good someone is at something you don’t know much about.

Ethan Roeder, the New Organizing Institute’s executive director, has looked at what campaign managers and consultants get paid. He says they don’t tend to advertise their records “because there is a general understanding that races are much more individual than that.” What they will advertise are individual races in which they beat the odds.

Roeder points to a primary election in which a then-unknown Tea Party candidate defeated Eric Cantor, now the former House Majority Leader. The campaign manager known for helping David Brat win that race will always be the campaign manager known for helping David Brat win that race.

“You know he was probably working for peanuts, and they gave him a gas stipend and a flip phone and that was basically his compensation for the job,” Roeder says.

The way the system is set up, there is no incentive for the best consultants to work on the toughest, most competitive races. Greg Martin, a professor of political science at Emory University, discovered that, along with Zachary Peskowitz, who teaches at The Ohio State University.

“Congressional elections, in general, are extremely predictable,” Martin says, noting an incumbent is likely to win 90 percent of the time.

 

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