Over the last 25 years, I have had an exciting career that has spanned various levels of government, various citizenship statuses and various responsibilities. I pride myself on being a well-rounded and adaptable person. As the Chief of Staff to former Governor Asa Hutchinson for several years of his administration, I thought perhaps I had seen it all.
Despite all of that, nothing could have prepared me for the rigors and surprises of a Presidential campaign, which long before he suspended his efforts, had become a truly humbling experience for me. For other aspiring Presidential campaign managers and political junkies, allow me to present the Top 5 (+1) things I discovered as a Presidential campaign manager.
1. Ideas and conviction matter. It’s easy to buy into the concept that campaigns are all about rhetoric. The pithy one-liners and not-so-subtle debate jabs get the headlines. Rarely does a policy announcement garner the same amount of attention as someone’s hot mic moment. But what I saw on the campaign trail was a deep attention to detail by the average American. More than once, a citizen pulled me aside to comment on how much they appreciated Gov. Hutchinson’s thoughtful interaction with them, and being strong in one’s convictions is the easiest way to not get caught in contradictory statements along the way.
2. Media coverage and the ability to raise money go hand-in-hand. Even though most Americans paid little attention to the primary debates, they were the barometer by which the media artificially narrowed the candidate field and impacted fundraising efforts. By this measure, media coverage left less-engaged voters with the impression that certain candidates were no longer in the race. The number of debate stages Governor Hutchinson was on directly correlated to donors’ willingness to give. And it costs so much to run a Presidential campaign.
3. Adaptability is critical. While conviction matters, the ability of a candidate and their campaign to adapt is equally important. In the Iowa caucuses, voters and candidates endured two blizzards in the week leading up to Caucus Day, which as it turned out, was also Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. Caucusgoers had every reason to stay home, so it was up to candidates to adjust quickly to meet voters where they were. Many campaigns canceled in-person events and pivoted to virtual events to continue reaching the key demographic: dedicated Iowa Republicans willing to brave the weather to caucus.
After one particularly low-attended event, we made a last-minute decision to have dinner at a nearby restaurant with the best review a restaurant can get: a packed parking lot. It turned out to be the best stop we made that day. We met a lovely, hard-working Italian-American family, the Vitales, who owned said restaurant and, before we left, all committed to caucusing for Governor Hutchinson.
Incidentally, I learned that and -40 degree wind chill is a real thing and it’s not so bad, because, you know, it’s a dry cold.
4. Politics don’t have to be personal. As it turns out, most campaign staffers are just trying to get their job done. In one Iowa city, we learned we were having an event in the same restaurant as another candidate. That event was several hours after ours, but as with all good events, staff was there very early to start setting up. As I walked out of the restaurant, I held the door open for some poor staffer who was just trying to get an unwieldy box of swag through the narrow doors. There’s nothing that feels good about letting a door slam in someone’s face, regardless of who they are supporting.
5. Running for President of the United States is incredibly complicated. There are far too many facets to go into in this piece, but suffice it to say that there is clearly no coordination among states about how they go about deciding how or whether to include someone on their ballot. And once you get through ballot access, a campaign has to have differing strategies for different state caucuses and primaries. While Iowa’s is the only one I got to experience, I am confident there couldn’t be a more complicated process for outsiders to try to understand.
BONUS. There is life after a campaign ends – there are many ways to work to save Democracy. A Presidential campaign is but one. I suspect we haven’t seen the last of Governor Hutchinson in this regard.
Editor’s note: Alison Williams served as chief of staff to Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and recently served as campaign manager for his Presidential bid. The opinions expressed are those of the author.