Michael Deaver. Ed Rollins. Lee Atwater. James Carville. Dick Morris. Karl Rove. David Axelrod. Steve Bannon.
Every recent president has had at least one top advisor who has been given generous credit for being the strategic mastermind behind his political success—credit that these operatives have seldom discouraged. As the conduct of campaigns has become more professionalized over time and the press has devoted more attention to the game within the political game, strategists and consultants have increasingly become famous in their own right. These figures are considered worthy of awe based on the assumption that the choices that they make during the course of the campaign—which messages to adopt, which ads to produce, which voters to target, how to attack the opposition—are likely to be crucial to the outcome.
These choices are important, and in a close election they might indeed be decisive. But there is reason to believe that the influence of campaign activity and strategy over electoral results is much more modest than it is often assumed to be, especially in the general elections for the presidency that command the most attention and publicity. For example, we can get a fair way toward predicting the final vote distribution in any particular election simply by accounting for a few basic variables like the state of the national economy, the identity of the party in power, and whether or not the incumbent is running—all factors that lie outside the campaign itself.
The quadrennial celebration of the key strategists behind the winning candidate as unrivaled masters of the political arts usually reflects an assumption that the outcome proved them to be savvier or more ruthless than their counterparts in the losing camp. But most of the time, there are equally smart and tough people on both sides of a race. One competitor will inevitably be elected and the other defeated—it's the nature of the business—but that doesn't mean that the winners are always geniuses and the losers always incompetents.
Interestingly, the 2020 election may be the first in a while that has not generated substantial press coverage of the top professional staffers in the two major presidential campaigns. Of course, there are other big stories to cover these days. But these stories have themselves managed to illustrate how elections can be powerfully influenced by forces independent of the campaigns themselves—forces like a pandemic, or a recession, or a newly energized social movement.
The 2020 race has also demonstrated how elections with an incumbent seeking another term in office tend to become a referendum on that incumbent's perceived performance. President Trump's strategic decisions have indeed had electoral effects, but those decisions do not appear to be guided by aides within his campaign apparatus. His current organization lacks a Bannonesque svengali figure able to provide a coherent intellectual frame to his quest for re-election. And since Trump's recent behavior has coincided with, and probably contributed to, a notable slide in the polls, there aren't too many subordinates eager to take credit for his candidacy's current trajectory in conversations with reporters.
And then there's Joe Biden. Biden engineered a fairly remarkable comeback in the Democratic nomination contest and has now pulled into a national lead unmatched at this stage of the campaign by any candidate in either party since Bill Clinton's 1996 re-election. Yet neither he nor his brain trust seem to be getting much credit in the media for this record of success: the resurrection of his primary campaign is mostly attributed either to Jim Clyburn throwing him a rope in South Carolina or to the fortuitous mistakes of the Sanders, Warren, and Bloomberg candidacies, and his growing lead in the general election race is similarly laid at Trump's feet. (I'd guess that even many regular consumers of political media would have trouble recalling the name of Biden's campaign manager; I certainly did before writing this post.) With the pandemic limiting his ability to wage a visible campaign, Biden has received a certain respect only for having enough patience and base cunning to stay out of the way as Trump's position deteriorates.
The press isn't being particularly unfair to Biden and his aides. But it has misled in the past by overstating the importance of strategic maneuvering by campaign gurus, excessively hyping the presumed architects of electoral victory while disparaging the unsuccessful team for supposedly blundering its way to defeat. If the 2020 election provides an unusually dramatic example of the fundamental importance of external factors and the limited power of short-term tactics, it will provide us with a useful lesson in the true nature of presidential campaigns. Yes, hiring a brilliant political mind can sometimes help win the White House. But with the most important factors remaining out of the hands of the candidates and their staffs, the biggest electoral asset of all remains sheer luck. Maybe what was needed to finally convince the media of this fact was Joe Biden—whom one prominent New York Times reporter recently called a “very flawed candidate running a flawed campaign”—nevertheless becoming a heavy favorite to be the next president.