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The Political Handler on the Art of Handling the Candidate’s Spouse

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Managing the politician is the biggest challenge. Sometimes it’s best to be the new guy on the scene, because it’s easy to burn through your relationships with the candidate’s family and friends. But sometimes there’s an advantage to having a deep relationship that’s engendered a trust and understanding of each other’s thinking. I’ve had each kind work and each kind crash and burn. A lot of your ability to manage a candidate depends on how things are going. You can be a dumbass, but if things are going well, you can be in fantastic shape. You can be a genius, but if things are going poorly, you’re screwed.

Managing the candidate’s spouse isn’t as important as the candidate, but it’s pretty damn important. At the upper level of this game, you go to bed at night thinking you spent all of your day managing personalities and very little of it working on the actual campaign, but if you lose the spouse, it’s hard to get your job done, and a lot of times the spouses don’t understand how campaigns work, they don’t understand the rhythms of it, they don’t understand how brutal the business is. Think about the now-acclaimed genius David Axelrod essentially getting sacked by Elizabeth Edwards in 2004. To anyone who knew anything about that campaign, it was unfair, but it happened because Elizabeth couldn’t believe John wasn’t getting there because of John.

A lot of the day-to-day work is helping the candidate improve. Is he or she getting sharper on the stump? It’s about practice and a willingness by the candidate to literally watch themselves and watch other people. Oppo research is one of the fun parts of the game. It’s easier these days to get the stuff out there, for sure. There are so many outlets, and somebody’s going to run with it. You just need to make sure the reporter you give it to isn’t going to waste it on a tweet.

The most difficult conversation is telling a candidate he can’t win and it’s time to get out. The second most difficult is telling the candidate that maybe it’s not as hopeless as it seems and he ought to stick it out two more weeks, no matter what his wife is telling him.

If you’re in the business long enough and at high-enough levels, some consultant inevitably plays capture-the-candidate, or, just as frequently, capture-the-candidate’s-wife, and undermines senior leadership. Sometimes it’s legitimately for power; sometimes it’s because they’re habitual pot-stirrers. When things are going badly, you can pretty much depend on somebody whispering in the spouse’s ear.

No matter what you’re doing in the campaign, if you’re not paying attention to the fund-raising, you’re in trouble. The cold, hard fact is a lot of the candidate’s day is eaten up with fund-raising. Every single candidate will say at the beginning of the campaign that they’re fully committed to spending five or six hours a day making calls, but once you get into the campaign, most of them will find a way to get that down to two hours. There’s always a bright shiny object to distract them. They’d rather tweak the language in an e-mail than do call time. To get them to do it, you just beat the shit out of them. Don’t let them anywhere near a laptop where they can go online. Take their cell phones away, too.

As told to Jason Zengerle


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