It takes a masochist to live my life.
My baptism into the campaign world came in 1982, in the form of an open U.S House seat in northwestern Pennsylvania. One of the underdog campaigns wanted my help on its media team. If truth be told, I wasn't the least bit concerned about party affiliation, the chance of winning or, for that matter, whether or not the candidate had a criminal record. I just wanted to get into the business. To this day I thank God that it was a Republican (Tom Ridge), and not someone from the Communist party.
It was two years into Reagan, and not the best time to be running as a Republican. With eight weeks to go we were down by 20 points. But almost miraculously, we had pulled within a few points going into Election Day.
At about midnight, the race was dead even. A runner from the last sizable polling site burst into the campaign headquarters with the numbers we were all waiting for. Remember, this is 1982. The results came in painfully slow, vote location by vote location, as they were driven back to headquarters.
As we looked at the sheet of paper, we all saw in horror that we were crushed in an area where we expected to do well. This was not supposed to happen. I was sure we were going to win. But the party was over, and it was time to give a concession speech.
At that moment, I decided this would be my first and last campaign. It was just too painful. Everyone worked so hard, but for nothing. And the thought of our sworn enemies now celebrating at their own headquarters was beyond comprehension. I felt tired, depressed and humiliated, and I was totally resolved to find something else to do. Clearly, this was not the way to spend a career. You'd have to be crazy.
But the political gods couldn't just let it end that way. Clearly they realized they were about to lose a young follower. And just moments before our candidate made his way to the podium to concede, something remarkable happened. In his haste, the young runner had transposed the numbers and, instead of losing, we were about to win by the razor-thin margin of 700 votes. It was at that moment my addiction began.
In a mere 30 minutes I went from experiencing the depths of depression to a euphoric state that I never knew was possible. I went from losing all confidence in my ability to succeed in this business, to believing I was invincible. The bottom line: I had fallen prey to the seduction of political campaigns, and despite the sadistic extreme highs and lows, it's an addiction I still have today. And on many levels, it is a regret I will always have.
Don't get me wrong, I have incredible respect for every practitioner in the political campaign world. I have been totally amazed at how many honest, passionate and brilliant people there are who call themselves political consultants. But to quote Bill Murray in Stripes, "There's something wrong with us, something very, very wrong with us. Something seriously wrong with us."
If you doubt me on this, a little introspection may be appropriate. Just take a look at our lives. We hold conference calls during hours that normal Americans refer to as "the middle of the night." We log so many travel miles we might as well deliver the mail along the way. We've missed way too many birthdays and school plays. We watch C-Span and Wolf Blitzer for fun. Our life expectancy is certainly less than the average American. If we are totally honest, our clients aren't always the most normal people in the world. And who the hell ever came up with daily tracking polls? Those certainly add a bit of fun to looking at your inbox every morning. Yet we come back again and again, election cycle after election cycle. As soon as the November elections are over this year, you can bet we'll all start looking for more clients.
Even when we are wronged by a client, or lose a devastating race, we persist and come back for more punishment. Joe Trippi took on Howard Dean after swearing he would never do another presidential race. And after Trippi took Dean from a nobody to a potential nominee with innovative tactics the campaign world had never seen before, he was bizarrely forced out of the campaign. Yet a mere four years later, he was back working a presidential, this time with John Edwards.
In 1996, the Bob Dole campaign parted ways with pollster Bill McInturff after some poor early primary showings. Not only were McInturff's numbers right on, but Bill is so highly respected that any campaign that would dismiss him should be required to institute immediate drug testing. Guess who's now polling for Sen. John McCain? And Robert Shrum has taken more punches than Duane Bobick, yet he always bounces back and even came within a first down of a Super Bowl ring. We are one crazy group of people.
This is not to say that many of us in this industry don't occasionally toy with the idea of escaping. James Carville and Paul Begala did it. And I'm sure others have made the transition to normal life America as well. As some people know, I have talked frequently about getting into the documentary business. My latest idea is an investigative video that exposes the corruption in the selection process at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For some time I have pondered how it could be possible that AC/DC and Parliament/Funkadelic are in, but YES isn't. Certainly it was a stolen election that makes Florida pale by comparison. Yet, it's not going to get done this election cycle--too many good races. And even better ones in 2010.
Maybe my biggest regret of all is that I know I'm not going to get help for my addiction anytime soon. Despite the popularity in regularly pummeling our trade, what we do matters. I remember on Election Day awhile back, a large advertising agency took out full-page ads in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and other publications with the headline: "We don't do that kind of advertising." The copy made it very clear that they would never do political advertising. Never. Too degrading. In other words, they believed the marketing of soap and soda was more important than the marketing of the ideas and leaders that will shape the world for generations to come. Not only was this agency terribly wrong, they also happen to now be out of business. Gee, that's a shame!
Another reason I'm not going anywhere is because it's about to get really interesting. I believe today's campaigns are in the early days of a revolution that will change how campaigns will be run forever. In large numbers, voters are turning to alternative mediums for political information. With the technological changes happening at remarkable speed, I can guarantee you that how campaigns will be run five years from now is nothing like how they're being run today. But what, exactly, it will look like is impossible to predict. Being involved in campaigns right now is a little like getting into Willie Wonka's traveling machine. Where it's going nobody knows, but I sure wouldn't want to miss the ride.
There's one more thing that I believe keeps all of us coming back, and it's the fact that we're in a business where we keep score. I'm not talking about "wimpy moving market share a few points" keeping score. I'm talking about "cage match throw-down where only one person is standing when the bell rings" keeping score. Tell me that isn't the ultimate reality show.
I would be remiss if I didn't end here by congratulating the Rising Stars of politics who are being honored in this very same issue. I recognize many of the names, and they certainly have earned the title. I would also like to be the first to invite them to our next support group meeting.
John Brabender, a Republican media consultant, is chief creative officer at Brabender Cox has served as media adviser to more than 200 candidates, as well as professional sports teams, entertainment companies and Fortune 500 firms.