Strategic Perception, Inc.

Top finishers in New Hampshire reject traditional playbook

Sean J. Miller
February 10, 2016

The two Republicans who finished at the top of the heap in the New Hampshire primary have both spent a considerable amount of time on the stump slamming the formula most modern campaigns rely on.

Real estate magnate Donald Trump, who won handily in New Hampshire Tuesday, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who took second place in the Granite State, have notably rejected the playbook espoused by traditional campaign consultants.

And it worked — in one state, at least.

In their own way, both are taking on the hierarchy in the campaign industry. Trump has been running for president with a skeleton crew while blasting the consultant class as unpatriotic lobbyists. His campaign hasn't conducted internal polls (the candidate recently questioned why any campaign would pay a pollster given the abundance of media polls that exist), and he has done little to assemble an organization on the ground in the early primary states.

Trump critics argue it's what cost him victory in Iowa, where rival Ted Cruz's data-driven approach was widely praised following the Texas Senator's win in the state last week. But despite the questions surrounding the sophistication of Trump's effort, he exceeded expectations in New Hampshire Tuesday, all while spending little on TV compared to his opponents.

John Kasich, meanwhile, disavowed one of the most effective tactics media consultants prescribe: negative campaigning. And he has done so even as Republican rivals have started attacking from all sides.

The Ohio governor's campaign has been producing its TV ads in-house, and spent the lead up to Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire running positive, issue-focused spots. It's the tactical equivalent of unilateral disarmament, many media consultants believe, but Kasich boasted about the approach on the stump.

During his speech on primary night, Kasich characterized his second-place finish as the light overcoming "the darkness of negative campaigning." He noted the tens of millions of dollars in negative advertising run against him, and told supporters that his campaign is "turning the page on a dark part of American politics."

"That's the old politics," Kasich said. "We never went negative because we have more good to sell than to spend our time being critical of somebody else."

Meanwhile, Trump boasted of self-funding his successful effort in New Hampshire while again back-handing the campaign industry.

"I think one of the things that really caught on: self funding my campaign," Trump said in his victory speech. "I see all of this money being poured into commercials — money just pouring into commercials. These are special interests, folks. These are lobbyists. These are people that don't necessarily love our country. They don't have the best interests of our country at heart. We're not going to let it happen. We have to do something about it."

Even Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who won a resounding victory over Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, has made his non-traditional approach a centerpiece of his message, repeatedly noting that his allies have yet to form a Super PAC to support his run and making clear that he would denounce any such efforts.

Despite the non-traditional messaging, Sanders and Kasich both employ consultants and mainstream vendors so their continued success this primary season is less likely to disrupt the traditional industry model. But a Trump victory, fueled primarily by media appearances, large rallies and "Make America Great Again" hats, could undermine the principal argument consultants make to clients: we help you win.

New Hampshire-based GOP consultant Dave Carney, who sat out the primary after Rick Perry dropped his bid, said the industry could use a shakeup.

"I always thought the role of consultants was overrated to begin with," Carney told C&E. "We've had these celebrity general consultants, or gurus for a decade or two now. Maybe it's a good thing [to disrupt that model]."

Carney said that Trump and Sanders had an authenticity that couldn't be coached by a team of consultants, something that significantly boosted their appeal to New Hampshire voters.

Consultants "help you on the margins," Carney argued. "Message matters. Both Bernie and Trump had a simple and straightforward message. They were the guys who were most authentic. Campaigns who have the best message do well."

Fred Davis, the media consultant to the Super PAC backing Kasich, said the Ohio governor's message was just good politics.

"Voters are begging for something different. Hence Trump or Bernie for some, John's uplifting, positive message for others," he said.

Another leader cheering the industry's disruption in the wake of Tuesday's primary was Jim Gilliam, CEO of NationBuilder. Trump has used the company's software and with his victory Tuesday became their highest profile client.

"Once people know they can win without having to have to sell their soul to the party, that opens up a whole new set of people who want to run," Gilliam said. "We're an existential threat to the partisan firms."

Read the original story at Campaigns&Elections.