Busting the Political Genius Myth

Maggie Haberman at Politico has a gushing profile of Iowa GOP Chair Matt Strawn, a largely behind-the-scenes figure who could still play a role in 2012 Republican campaigns. Haberman's piece portrays Strawn as an expert political operative responsible for rebuilding the state party after a weak 2008 election.

Strawn had resuscitated a once-broken state party organization into a fundraising force with a string of midterm election cycle wins, and emerged as a rising star among Republicans who has built on his native Iowan roots along with strong insider credentials as a former congressional aide.

This article falls into the common narrative trap of creating a whiz political organizer to explain successful campaigns. Strawn seems like a competent enough party manager, but Terry Branstad's win in the 2010 gubernatorial race was a no-brainer. Former Democrat Gov. Chet Culver was widely reviled in the state, with such high disapproval ratings that any candidate could have sailed to an easy victory.

Beyond Branstad's campaign, there is no grand success to justify heaping credit on Strawn. In a midterm in which scores of incumbent Democrats lost their seats, not a single spot in the U.S. House flipped in Iowa. The one impressive campaign waged by Iowa Republicans last fall was a successful move to oust three Supreme Court Justices who voted in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage. But that campaign was waged outside of the state party organization and was spearheaded by a prominent social conservative who lost to Branstad during the gubernatorial primary.

Political journalists love to single out masterminds behind campaigns. George Bush had Karl Rove, Barack Obama has David Plouffe. But more often than not, elections are influenced by general trends -- what party currently controls Congress or the unemployment rate -- that campaigns cannot directly control. The job of a competent campaign manager is largely to prevent the candidate from saying anything blatantly damaging in front of the press, spend enough money to boost name recognition, and then otherwise let those general trends play themselves out.

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