Rand Paul: Running for Office Requires Running an Office

Rand Paul’s campaign has faltered. So did Mitt Romney’s. Both faltered to some degree because of personnel/staffing problems (see here for Paul, here for Romney, and here for an article in June describing similar issues in Jeb Bush’s campaign). On the other side of the coin, and the aisle, I blogged a few months ago about why Hillary might have held up her official entry into the 2016 race in order to jam up potential Democratic contenders from assembling talented staffs.

In addition to classic “interests” (such as discussed here by Julia Azari and here by Hans Noel) and donors (as pointed out here by Richard Skinner and here by Greg Koger), any electorally viable party is also composed of professional campaign staff. From pollsters to lawyers to campaign finance specialists to good, old-fashioned “implementers,” these men and women often (but not always) make their living from working on campaigns.

Furthermore, they are hired by candidates (or, more accurately, usually by members of candidates’ staffs). As a general rule, they are not hired randomly. Staff are hired to help the campaign achieve its goal, which is often to win—or at least achieve a good showing in the polls. Because campaign staff are not drafted involuntarily, this means that potential staffers should choose which campaign they work on in any given election cycle with an eye to the next cycle (or beyond).

To see how this process ends up creating connections between (and within) campaigns, check out this great interactive feature by the NY Times. The impact of these connections on campaigns’ strategies is examined in this recent American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) article by Brendan Nyhan and Jacob Montgomery. My point here is that campaign staffing matters for electoral viability in a way that arguably supersedes its impact on campaign decisions. Rand Paul’s experiences—in particular, the candidate being (seen as) difficult to “manage”—are not unusual.

I think that this mundane aspect of campaigning—the nuts and bolts of logistics and coordination—plays an important and under-appreciated role in representation and electoral accountability. This is because running a campaign is akin to running a political office. Regardless of whether the candidate is seeking a legislative, executive, or judicial office, representing his or her constituents’ interests once in that office requires carrying out the same kind of activities that running a nimble and responsive electoral campaign does.

Accordingly, campaign staff arguably serve as a kind of canary in the coal mine for the electorate: if a candidate is broadly seen as one that who would not further the careers of a campaign staffer, then that candidate is unlikely to run the kind of office that is required to reliable serve his or her constituents’ interests.

This recognition also provides a different take on the fact that, for all intents and purposes, professional campaign staffers are partisan. That is, it is rare to find a campaign professional who works for candidates in both parties. In this sense, campaign professionals differ from “industry group” donors, which tend to cross party lines with some frequency (e.g., see here but, on donors more broadly, also see here). By being at least apparently partisan[1] and motivated to work on successful campaigns, these staffers collectively possess both the knowledge and incentives to effectively (though perhaps not efficiently) “sort” candidates with respect to their abilities to carry a coherent message (whatever that message may be). Perhaps the best recent example of this is provided by the Koch Brothers’ refusal to provide logistical support to Donald Trump, as Hans Noel describes here.

More generally, the ability to hire, retain, and coordinate effective campaign staffs is one facet of what political scientists refer to as “valence,” which refers to non-policy characteristics of a candidate that the electorate has generally shared preferences about.

In terms of how these features should affect campaigns, including how they will affect ideological polarization and the competitiveness of elections, Jennifer Carter and I construct a theory in our forthcoming articleAJPS examining the effect of this kind of valence, which we refer to as campaign valence, in line with this great AJPS article by Walter Stone and Elizabeth Sima. Our theory indicates several effects of the quality of a candidate’s campaign staff.[2] For example, the theory indicates that if a challenger has a high quality staff, this will sometimes prompt non-centrist incumbents (e.g., those who have fallen “out of step” with their constituents’ preferences) to run a more aggressive campaign and attempt to get “into step,” thereby indirectly increasing electoral accountability. On the other hand, if the incumbent has a very high quality staff, this can preempt challengers from entering the race, thereby potentially reducing electoral accountability.

What to take from this is that both theory and empirics indicate that campaign staffs are important, and important beyond merely predicting the horse-race between otherwise identical candidates—even if campaign staffs do not directly affect the strategy choices of the campaigns they work for (which they assuredly do), the ability to acquire and retain a high quality staff has both direct and indirect effects on democratic representation and electoral accountability. Indeed, the soft power exerted by those who are able to harness and deliver good front offices—effective chiefs of staff, energetic campaign finance operators, well-connected media consultants, savvy pollsters, etc. may rival or exceed that of simple monetary donations.

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[1] Delving too far into the origins of this sorting falls beyond the scope of this post, but I say “apparently partisan” because for my purposes here it does not really matter whether the sorting is based on the staffers’ true policy preferences or simply enforced in equilibrium by social norms and hiring/recruiting practices.
[2] In our model, the quality of a candidate’s staff is represented in his or her likelihood of being able to respond to the opponent’s announcement of a platform.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]