Incompetent Presidential Campaigns Aren't the Exception, They're the Rule

If there's one thing the Politico is good at, it's channeling the feelings of Washington insiders, and today they give us a taste of what those insiders on the Republican side think of Herman Cain. In short, the Cain Train is a train wreck, "what many political professionals say is political malpractice on a grand scale":

That familiar Keystone Kops performance is a reflection of an organization staffed by few operatives with presidential experience, working for a political neophyte who’s proven himself ill-equipped for a national campaign. The combination of a supremely self-assured candidate — speaking in the third person and convinced of his own ability to talk himself out of any jam — surrounded by a group of not-ready-for-prime-time aides making it up as they go along has resulted in a campaign meltdown for the ages.

It isn't as though we haven't seen inept primary campaigns before, but what we haven't seen before is inept campaigns that rocket to the front of the pack. And we sure as heck haven't seen one inept campaign after another rocket to the front of the pack in a single primary. Although it's often hard to tell from the outside exactly what level of incompetence is at work, it seems pretty plain that among the long parade of front-runners, not only Cain but also Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich have run campaigns that at times displayed a stunning lack of organization. Does this reflect on the people themselves? To a degree it does. For instance, Newt Gingrich may be trying to staff up now, but for a long while he seemed to think all that was necessary to succeed was the blinding power of his world-historical vision, which is why his campaign makes screw-ups like forgetting to get him on the ballot for the Missouri primary.

Campaigns present some unique management problems, particularly when they suddenly catch fire. Let's say you owned a plumbing service with 10 or 20 employees. Then one day, someone came to you and said, "OK, in the next 30 days you have to multiply the size of your staff by a factor of 10, open up dozens of new locations spread across multiple states, and convince thousands and thousands of people to use your plumbing service, all while hundreds of reporters ask you uncomfortable questions and ten other plumbers go on television every day to talk about why you're a crappy plumber." You'd have to be one hell of a manager to pull it off successfully.

It would really help, furthermore, if the person you hired as your CEO had done this kind of thing before and done it well. So what you find in most successful campaigns is that the folks at the top are highly competent. For instance, David Plouffe, who managed Barack Obama's 2008 campaign, was not only experienced -- he had worked on multiple campaigns at the local, state, and national level, and had run the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee -- but was also widely known in Democratic circles as one of the smartest and most capable operatives in the business. Before he ran George W. Bush's 2000 campaign, Karl Rove had run a zillion races in Texas and earned a reputation as a smart and ruthless strategic thinker, which was evident in the care with which he began constructing Bush's campaign a couple of years before the actual election.

But when Herman Cain decided to run for president, he picked Mark Block, a dude he met at some Americans for Prosperity events, to run his campaign. Block had managed some races in Wisconsin but had no national experience. Not that someone like him couldn't be a cracker-jack organizer, but Block turned out to be comically inept.

This isn't to say the candidate isn't the most important factor; Herman Cain could have had the best campaign team in the world, and his candidacy still would have been a disaster. But it's no accident that inept presidential campaigns aren't the exception, they're the rule.

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