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Campaign Conversation

TEACHING | During the recent presidential campaign, two of the country's leading political strategists, Steve Jarding (a longtime Democratic advisor and currently an HKS lecturer) and Mark McKinnon (a political advisor to numerous Republican presidential campaigns and IOP Fellow 2012), were, for the first time in many years, watching from the sidelines while in residence at the Kennedy School. The two strategists recently shared with HKS Magazine their observations about November's election and what the political future may hold.

Q Some say the Obama team ran a 21st century campaign to Mitt Romney's 20th century campaign. Any truth to this?

SJ To some extent there may be some validity to it, but I'm not certain of that. I'm not one who looks at the Romney campaign and says it was the campaign and organization that lost. Having said that, by most accounts the Obama campaign organization was stronger. It certainly seemed to turn votes out in targeted communities better than the Romney campaign did, but that's not the fault of the campaign's organization. You could perhaps fault other variables, starting with the candidate. In this case, a lot of the votes the Obama campaign was turning out were people that Romney frankly seemed to disavow during the course of the campaign. I wouldn't say that one organization was so much fabulously better than the other.

MM I think there's a tendency to ascribe all sorts of magical attributes to the campaign that wins. Certainly the Obama campaign took advantage and refined technological components of modern-day campaigning and took it to a new level, but all the technology in the world wouldn't have helped if they hadn't had a great candidate. To win a presidential campaign, it's all got to come together. You've got to have a great candidate, a good message, and you should be at the leading edge of whatever tools are available.

Q Much was made during the campaign about the impact of the superPAC in influencing the election. In the end, would you agree?

MM I think its impact is vastly overblown and overestimated. I think you can argue that some of the superPAC money gave Romney coverage early on when he was at a deficit coming out of his primary. I think at the end of the day, it was a ton of white noise that made very little difference.

SJ I don't disagree in the sense that it is probably more white noise than not, but I do think that superPACs have the capacity to be impactful. Had this been an open seat, for instance, or had Romney been the incumbent and Obama the challenger, the superPAC money would have had more of an influence. I think the impact of superPACs won't be felt entirely until the next cycle. We'll have both a midterm cycle in 2014 for the superPAC money to feel its way into the system and an unencumbered race where one candidate does not have the advantage of incumbency. If I were advising the superPACs — I hate to say this because I don't like the superPACs in concept or in practice — but I would say, "Keep your powder dry," because the real test for you guys is 2016.

Q Do you have any advice for the Republican Party?

SJ The first thing I would do — and this may sound a little strange perhaps — but I wouldn't overreact. They came very close to winning, so you don't want to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. You have to look and say they were able to accomplish a fair amount. But having said that, I do think there's no question, they have to get their arms around the role of the Tea Party. There's some legitimate estimate that there were about five U.S. Senate races over the last two cycles where, had they not nominated the more Tea Party–type candidate, Republicans could have picked up seats. I think they need to figure out how as a party they have to reach groups that they're not reaching.

MM I do think it bears remembering that the Republicans still won the House of Representatives. It was not a tidal wave election. I think the smart strategist will take a sober view of this. I hear a lot of Democrats pounding their chests and talking about Democratic hegemony for the next 10 or 20 years, and that's exactly what I heard in 2004 about the Republicans. It's important that the party be more diverse, that it be more tolerant, that it evolve on issues like immigration and gay marriage, all of which are accordant with actual Republican philosophies. George W. Bush redefined the party with compassionate conservatism. Ronald Reagan redefined the party. It's a time when we need bold new leadership and new vision. And the good news is that there's a lot of that out there. Sometimes you've got to lose a couple of elections to burn out a lot of the deadwood, and I think that's what we're doing.

Q How does the field look for 2016?

MM There are a lot of terrific candidates: Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Bobby Jindhal, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush. There's new blood, new ideas. I think we're going to see a lot more of the ice from the Stone Age breaking in terms of our policy and thinking. I'm excited about the Republican prospects because there seem to be a lot of new faces. Whereas I look at the Democratic side of the fence and the people they're talking about are Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden and a lot of folks who've been around a long, long time. So we may flip the deck here, and the Republican Party could be the face of the new, younger, energetic party come 2016.

SJ I tend to agree that, at least on the surface, it appears the Republi­cans have a pretty deep bench. They have a lot of interesting individuals out there, including all the names that Mark mentioned. For the Democrats, the difference is that they have to let the next four years play out. Because Obama is in the White House, the Democratic prospects in 2016 are more tied to his success or failure. If the Democrats are successful, they're in a much better position. And the Democrats have a bench. Look at Andrew Cuomo in New York, or Martin O'Malley in Maryland, or Mark Warner in Virginia. I look at politics as dog years; 2016 is four years away. If a dog year is seven years, the next presidential election is really 28 years from now. The point is a lot could happen in the next four years.

MM One of the interesting things is there's not only the possibility — I'd say there's the probability — that this race could be Clinton versus Bush in 2016. If they decide to run, they're the odds-on favorites for the nomination. That said, the fascinating thing about American politics is how often we throw conventional wisdom out the window. While they could be the formidable favorites, this is a very unhappy country right now. People are not happy with the status quo. They're looking for unconventional routes. I think anything could happen. Anything will happen, which makes American politics an exciting thing to watch and be part of.