It was three A.M., and Stuart Stevens paced frantically in his hotel room. Hours earlier he had received the latest campaign polls, and his candidate was behind by several points. Now Stevens couldn’t sleep. He anxiously e-mailed ideas to colleagues, rethought the latest cut of an ad and crafted lines for a big speech less than 24 hours away. He was in the fight of his life.
That was four years ago, when Stevens ran Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. Now, as the 2016 election cycle kicks up, similar scenes are playing out across the country. Huddled in hotels is a super-elite group of consultants—chief strategists for a nearly $1 billion enterprise known as a presidential campaign.
Sometimes the job pressure is so intense that strategists puke, as Stevens did when he sent an unscripted Clint Eastwood on stage with an empty chair and the star had a “conversation” with an imaginary President Barack Obama for an excruciating 12 minutes of prime-time TV. Backstage, Stevens also threw furniture. But he and others in the business say it’s worth enduring the pressure for the high that comes with it. “The work has all the fun of combat, but nobody dies—or at least not very often,” says Stevens. “The appeal is simple: Your guy is good, the other guy is evil, and every day you wake up trying to beat the crap out of the other guy.”
Political strategists have operated behind the scenes since at least 1932, when Franklin D. Roosevelt first ran for the White House. During a campaign stop in Pittsburgh, FDR pledged to overhaul the federal budget, but four years later, when he was up for reelection, the government was still spending more than it was taking in. Roosevelt turned to his advisor. “I’ve got to go back to Pittsburgh,” he said. “The last thing I said there was that I was going to balance the budget. What do I say now?” The strategist replied, “Mr. President, deny that you’ve ever been in Pittsburgh.”
That kind of cunning earns today’s top strategists up to $100,000 a month. For that money, they teach politicians how to walk and talk, and even tell them what to wear. Most aren’t zealous ideologues. They don’t believe they’re carrying out a lofty patriotic duty. They just love a good fight.
“Doing this is like coaching in big-time college sports or the NFL,” says Steve Schmidt, chief strategist for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “You make thousands of decisions, and all of them play out in the leads of the news, day after day, for the whole world to see.”
The appeal is primal. “I fancied myself more of an angry linebacker type, running around looking for somebody to hit,” says Stevens. Plus, these consultants help shape the national conversation. That ability to influence becomes addictive. When McCain told Schmidt his campaign was broke, Schmidt—so exhilarated by the work—offered to stay on for free.
Just when it looked as if the usual strategists would orchestrate another campaign season, last spring Donald Trump announced his candidacy and dumped the whole political process on its head. Trump doesn’t employ high-priced strategists, and his taunts to the “losers” who do helped drive up his poll numbers. When veteran strategists Alex Castellanos and Charlie Black appeared on Meet the Press last year, moderator Chuck Todd said, “You guys are who [Trump’s] running against.” Trump had violated the number one rule of politics: Don’t give away the game.
Trump’s message resonates in part because he confirms what increasingly media-savvy voters have gleaned from a steady diet of social media, House of Cards and cable-TV news: Namely, we see through the sham. That’s why Kate McKinnon’s parody of Hillary Clinton on Saturday Night Live last fall rings so true. “I think you’re really going to like the Hillary Clinton that my team and I have created for this debate,” she says as Clinton. “She’s warm—but strong. Flawed—yet perfect. Relaxed—but racing full speed toward the White House like the T-1000 from Terminator.”
Eschewing scripted speeches and talking about how the system is rigged also propelled Democrat Bernie Sanders into becoming Hillary Clinton’s most potent challenger. Sanders showed he didn’t need a Beltway team to fashion his persona. He uses leading Democratic strategist Tad Devine for operational needs, not for brand building. Besides, Devine claims, Sanders has been the same since he was elected to Congress in 1990. “He has always spoken his mind. The message that he’s delivering in this campaign, he has delivered for a decade.” Still, Devine admits that a seismic shift is under way, even if neither Sanders nor Trump makes it to the Oval Office. The game that political strategists used to play has been put to rest for good.
“Authenticity,” says Devine, “is now the coin of the realm.”