If You Can Run A Winning Campaign, You're Probably Fit To Be President

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 15.678% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Organizing and running a national campaign is such a monstrously complex thing that I’ve actually come to a strange conclusion: the system works.  The guy who gets elected President is, by and large, the one who’s more competent.
(Not “the most” competent, mind you.  Just more than the other guy.)
The reason I bring this up is because of this fascinating article in Ars Technica, describing all the technical problems Mitt Romney had in the last days of his campaign.  TL;DR version: Mitt’s campaign rushed out a huge, cobbled-together piece of software to coordinate efforts, didn’t test how it would perform under crushing, constant load (like, say, Election Day), sent the wrong passwords to large segments of their people, and didn’t actually provide documentation on how to use it until the day before.
And I’m thinking: this is the businessman?  The guy who’s making a series of chump mistakes that any competent corporation would avoid?
Compare to Barack Obama, who looked over the electoral map and said, “Each county is like the FBI and CIA, theoretically doing a lot of the same things but not talking to each other.”  And created a large-scale infrastructure so all the Democratic local offices could share data with each other.  To a large extent, Obama’s victory was about mastering IT.
But I’m not just saying this because I liked Obama!  I first started wondering about it in the disastrous 2004 election, when John Kerry got Swiftboated.
Because Karl Rove was (and is) well-known for going after people’s strong points.  Kerry had been warned by such luminaries as Senator Max Cleland – who lost his legs in Vietnam, and yet the Rove-managed opposition went after his patriotism, airing commercials that accused him of being soft on terror and showing his face next to pictures of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.  He lost, big-time.
So when the Swiftboat accusations arrived, and Kerry’s whole war record was put into question and his medals mocked, what did he do?  According to all reports, he spent three weeks staggered by the immensity of the falsehoods, not sure how to react, and by the time he finally did come out swinging the damage had been done.
And I thought: this is a guy who’s supposed to protect us from terrorists?  Karl Rove might as well sent a letter to his office, saying, “I’MMA GONNA SMASH YOU WAR RECORD,” and he wasn’t prepared for this?  What happens when a genuine terrorist attacks? 
And then I thought: is this man even qualified to be President?
Even now, looking back at the horridness of Katrina and Bush’s slow response, I honestly don’t think Kerry would have done that much better.  And Gore, well, if he couldn’t win the office coming off the immense popularity of the Clinton campaign, reducing what should have been an unbeatable lead to a scrap over 537 votes in Florida, you have to question his ability to lead.
Look.  Presidential Campaigns are a gruelling, two-year-long process at a minimum – one that requires deft political skills, a significant amount of organizing gigantic groups, reacting quickly to unforeseen events, and innovation – which is, largely, the skillset needed to be President.  And the guy who wins is the guy who did better at those skills.
I’m not saying that Bush or Obama is the best guy to be President.  I’m saying that of the two people running that year, going all the way back to my personal memories in 1996, the guy who won deserved the victory.  He was better at that skillset.
Maybe it’s a better test of leadership than we thought.


  1. Ben Calvert
    Nov 10, 2012

    If you posit that it was Karl Rove running the campaign for bush, them I can accept your conclusion. Karl is quite competant… He just doesn’t care about people in NOLA.

  2. ilya
    Nov 13, 2012

    This is an interesting idea. However it treats the electorate as an inert mass to be moved one way or the other. Whoever has the more powerful machine, wins. But people have their own opinions and it is not clear that anything the candidates or their organizations do will sway the crowd. It could be that one candidate just aligns with the interests of a greater share of the population. It could be that Obama had the more efficient campaign but it could also be that he didn’t alienate everyone who wasn’t a white male over 30.
    And then there’s the media who play their own game. I will never forget how they ganged up on Howard Dean all for letting out a yelp at a rally. For whatever reason they just hated him and jumped on the first excuse. It seemed to have sunk his candidacy. I don’t think being more decisive or having effective communications would have saved him after that point.

    • TheFerrett
      Nov 14, 2012

      And the point is that Howard Dean did something, regardless of whether you agree with it or not, that was viewed as ridiculously unpresidential. No, being more decisive wouldn’t have saved him. But better attention to presentation might have avoided it.
      And Obama’s “not alienating the people who weren’t white males” is part of the process. You think it’s easy not to offend people, particularly with policies? You think it’s easy to know which demographics to court, and when, and why? That’s Presidential decision-making right there.

      • ilya
        Nov 14, 2012

        Viewed as “unpresidential” by whom? The whole concept of “unpresidential” is a little ridiculous. What do gestures have to do with being a good president? Why does starting a war on flimsy premises and lying about them not enough to call you “unpresidential” but lying about a consensual affair between two adults enough?
        It seems to me you are accepting what the media (or the Washington establishment in general) is saying are presidential qualities as an objective standard.
        The person who perfectly fits that standard and manages not to offend anyone in Washington is not necessarily a good president as I think the Obama presidency amply demonstrates.

        • TheFerrett
          Nov 14, 2012

          It seems to me you are accepting what the media (or the Washington establishment in general) is saying are presidential qualities as an objective standard.
          No, I’m accepting that what the media peddles as a Presidential quality needs to be approved by, you know, THE PEOPLE THEY’RE SELLING IT TO. There were whole kerfluffles about Bush (both of them) being unpresidential, or Obama’s grins being too unpresidential, or… well, any President.
          By treating the media as some sort of brainwashing entity, you reduce and negate the populace. Fact is, they have to be inclined to buy what the media is selling. If Americans hadn’t also viewed it as unpresidential, Howard Dean would be in the media. As it is, what you’re doing is saying “THE MEDIA IS MAKIN’ DECISIONS FOR THOSE DUMB BASTARDS!” and I don’t buy that.

          • ilya
            Nov 14, 2012

            But then why did Dean’s campaign pretty much die at that point? He was doing pretty well in the polls before then. The level of mockery toward Bush never came close to the widespread scorn for Dean. I’m not even that big of a Dean fan it just struck me how he was thrown to the dogs.
            Are you saying the media does nothing to establish norms? We are all products of our culture and the media almost by definition are guardians of that culture. Why are positions that are mainstream in Europe (socialized healthcare) are considered untouchable here?
            There are many actors here: the candidates, the electorate (itself split among many groups), the political establishment. I don’t think arguing backwards – because they won must mean they were the best fit for president is valid. It could be a reason but it could be that the majority of the electorate was already predisposed toward them or it could be that the establishment acted against them. I think this is really the crux of my discomfort with your argument. It’s too neat. There are many factors. One can do everything right as a candidate and still fail. And conversely, just because you won doesn’t mean you did everything right.
            Anyway, I think it’s about as far as I should take this. Thanks for letting me use your comment box to air some thoughts.

  3. Nancy K
    Nov 13, 2012

    I don’t know how accurately you can say Kerry lost since we had to have a Supreme Court ruling over it, there was a lot of recounting, etc. That’s one of the 4 (?) elections in all of US history where the President LOST the popular vote, but still became president…
    Lost big time? Not really.

    • TheFerrett
      Nov 14, 2012

      He lost big time ABSOLUTELY. If you’re coming off of the most popular Democratic President in recent history, whose fiscal policies were producing an age of prosperity (which was admittedly a bubble, but still), and the country wasn’t at war and in growth, and you piss that lead away to a dead heat, then you have FAILED.
      Gore fucked up. He lost big time. Because it should never have come down to Florida, or the popular vote. He should have won the way Clinton did in 1996, 379 to 156.

  4. Nancy K
    Nov 13, 2012

    EDIT: I realized I confused my elections and was thinking of the 2000 election — not the 2004 like you referenced. My bad.

  5. ilya
    Nov 15, 2012

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