Presidential Budget Woes

Campaigns fail for a variety of reasons. Some reasons are beyond the control of the campaign and its manager: A crowded field, an upset or apathetic electorate, or an unimpeachable opponent. Some failures can be traced back to a candidate: Skeletons in the closet, gaffes, and laziness. And many flops fall squarely on the shoulders of the campaign manager; one of those failures is the inability to maintain budget control. In addition to a campaign manager’s roles in developing and executing strategy, hiring and managing staff, and being a surrogate for the boss, the task of staying in the black is solely the responsibility of the campaign manager.

Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported on the campaign of Dr. Ben Carson, the pediatric neurosurgeon who has skyrocketed to conservative fame in a short period of time. The Journal scoured financial documents from the Carson presidential campaign and found “[Dr.] Carson’s team raised $8.8 million in October and spent $9.5 million—putting the retired neurosurgeon’s effort under water months before the first early-state voters caucus and cast ballots.”

It appears “Carson fever,” as campaign manger Barry Bennett called it, has become scarlet fever because of all the red ink. And sadly, Carson’s is not the first campaign to fall victim to budgetary mismanagement this cycle. And it appears Dr. Carson caught the problem in time, telling The Washington Post “every job is on the table. And we’re going to analyze it very carefully,” although he later told the Post that senior staff would remain in place, a move I believe is misguided.

Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker wasn’t lucky enough to catch his campaign manager’s mistakes in time. His bid for the presidency floundered for a few weeks before campaign manager Rick Wiley ran up a tab larger than Walker could afford to pay. The lavish bill Wiley stuck Walker with included “hiring 90 staffers, including a full-time photographer and high-paid consultants.” (Equally ridiculous is that Wiley blamed the boss for the failure, crossing an ethical line that violates at least two of the points on the AAPC’s Code of Professional Ethics.)

Budgeting is hard; I get it. Campaign budgeting is even more difficult because you don’t have a guaranteed source of income (unless your candidate is Donald Trump and funding the effort himself). I know it’s hard because I have written and had to manage campaign budgets. The first campaign I managed raised and spent $40,000, a fraction of what was spent by the other two candidates. But we stayed in the black and out-performed expectations on Election Day. In the end, we spent $13.39 per vote while the other two campaigns spent an average of $55.66 per vote. Campaign budgeting, while tedious and unpredictable, is not so difficult that running millions into the red is even remotely justifiable.

Presidential campaigns are the pinnacle of electoral politics in the United States. They are the most observed, most studied, and produce the highest turnout of voters of any level of politics in the country. Given the magnitude of these campaigns, it stands to reason the presidential aspirants would seek only the most professional and trustworthy managers for their campaigns. However, it appears they are not getting the professionalism a campaign needs. Every campaign needs a professional manager with more than a strong political instinct; the campaign manager must be realistic in budgeting, and that realism goes a long way to staying on the positive side of the ledger (and the boss).

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