When Elizabeth Warren said earlier this year she was swearing off fundraisers, many Democratic strategists saw it as a sign of desperation from a flailing candidate.
But that gamble against conventional wisdom — which is paying off handsomely, given the $19.1 million she raised in the second quarter — is far from the only way Warren is defying the traditional playbook for running a modern presidential campaign.
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The campaign has gone without an outside polling firm, and says it has no plans to hire one, even though it is standard operating procedure for most serious candidates. Instead of initially stockpiling resources for a home-stretch TV ad blitz, she’s amassed a payroll of 300-plus staffers in the early months of the campaign — overhead that could deplete her coffers if her fundraising ever falters.
And now, the campaign told POLITICO that it is shunning the typical model for producing campaign ads, in which outside firms are hired and paid often hefty commissions for their work. Instead, Warren’s campaign is producing TV, digital and other media content itself, as well as placing its digital ad buys internally.
Taken together, Warren’s approach is a rebuke of the consultant-heavy model of campaigns — an often lucrative arrangement in which the people advising campaigns invariably tell candidates that the best political strategy is to buy what they sell, namely TV ads and polling. If carried out for the duration, the moves would create the most robust in-house media production and buying team in recent presidential politics.
And if Warren makes it to the general election, a large swath of Democratic consultants, including some whom Warren has used in past campaigns, could be relegated to the sidelines. That’s because Warren and her campaign team see the standard campaign as another symbol of Washington corruption — and an opportunity to do things differently.
“Campaigns offer a chance not only to tell people what kind of president you’ll be, but to show it,” said Joe Rospars, Warren’s chief campaign strategist. “She’s running her campaign the way she intends to govern: willing to question existing power structures, making decisions grounded in evidence, and always fighting to build something more progressive, more inclusive, more joyful — and more democratic — than what came before.”
But despite Warren’s early success, there’s no guarantee her strategy will work over the long haul. For one, hiring outside talent allows campaigns to pick and choose among experts, defenders of the current model say. There’s a reason why many campaigns do it this way, they argue.
“Quality has cost. I’d rather have Jim Margolis [who is working for Kamala Harris] on my side and pay some fees than ‘Larry’ in a cubicle in-house who is learning media buying,” said veteran GOP consultant Mike Murphy, who headed up the Jeb Bush-aligned super PAC in 2016 and is co-host of the “Hacks on Tap” podcast with Democratic strategist David Axelrod. “Not having a pollster is just running on outsized hubris and ego, I think. But maybe they have an in-house pollster next to Larry.”
Murphy added, “The truth is it can work but it’s expensive to do it in-house.”
But Warren’s team clearly believes she’s on to something. Aside from cutting out costly commissions, they’re intent on avoiding the outsized egos that are common in the consultant world — and the leaks that sometimes come with them. Already, Joe Biden’s and Kamala Harris’ campaigns have been the subjects of news stories about infighting between consultants and campaign staff.
And in theory, at least, the MO could allow the campaign to be more cohesive and nimble.
Aides pointed to Warren’s response in May to an Alabama bill that attempted to largely revoke abortion rights. After the state Senate passed the legislation on a Tuesday night, Warren and her policy team finalized a proposal to codify Roe v. Wade on the federal level by Thursday, in time for a Friday media rollout. Meanwhile, Warren reached out personally to abortion rights groups, and the in-house team prepared graphics, social media content, ads, and emails.
None of these moves is unique to Warren, but the campaign sees its set-up as a way to move faster in an era that rewards speed.
Tim Lim, a Democratic consultant and partner at NewCo, said the campaigns and elections industry is watching Warren’s experiment closely.
If “they win, then this will change the way that campaigns are run,” he said. “But these steps take time and the turnaround is not instantaneous,” he said, referring to the staffing-up a campaign has to do to replicate many of the functions typically performed by outside firms.
The time and resources necessary to stand up such an in-house team is even more difficult given that many of the top political practitioners work in well-paid consulting firm gigs that they may not want to leave.
Rospars, in many ways the architect of Warren’s approach since joining her team in late 2017, is, ironically, an example of this dynamic. The former chief digital strategist for both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, Rospars is the founder of Blue State Digital and is being paid through the firm even as he is building Warren’s in-house team and not taking commissions.
Longtime Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, who worked with Rospars on Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign, said Warren’s gambit has promise.
“It’s not unusual at all for a campaign to go a different route than what everyone else is doing, and it’s often that the bigger advances happen in those kinds of campaigns,” said Trippi, who is not working for a 2020 campaign. He said that Beto O’Rourke—particularly early on—and Warren both seemed to be trying to disrupt the model, but so far Warren has been the one to see success. “I mean, something has been going right there.”
The ascension of Rospars to chief strategist signals that the campaign is prioritizing smartphones and computers over TV. The campaign has assigned more than 15 people to its video and digital media teams.
Warren’s past media consultants, including veteran Mandy Grunwald, are not signed on for the presidential effort. Grunwald has stayed out of the race given that Sen. Amy Klobuchar is a longtime client as well. But Warren also chose not to air the TV ads that Grunwald produced during the 2018 Senate reelection, according to the New York Times — instead stockpiling the money and later transferring $10 million to the presidential campaign. Grunwald declined to comment for this story.
Veteran Democratic consultant Bob Shrum said that moving operations inside the campaign can work but “[i]t depends on the quality of people doing it.” He also disputed the idea that smartphones and digital have overtaken television.
“I don’t think we are at the tipping point,” Shrum said. “Given that older voters are still so important to the process, broadcast is important.”