Three Yards and a Cloud of Dust

What I don’t know about winning a modern presidential campaign is pretty much what there is to know about the subject, but this piece (via Patrick Ruffini) should be pretty scary to anybody who wants to compete with Hillary Clinton.

It is an in-depth look at Clinton’s precinct organization in Nevada. There are big, obvious caveats to what I’m about to say – I have no idea how accurate this report is, how representative this group is of the national Clinton organization, how this compares to the field organizations of other candidates, etc. – but this description of a high-function organization rang very true to me, and neatly illustrates the point that operational discipline is the foundation of winning when times get tough:

Every single night, for almost one year up until today, in the modest Las Vegas offices of the Clinton campaign, young, exhausted organizers have reliably reported the results of their hard days’ work to a regional field director in incredible detail. Every night, without fail.

A little after 9:00 PM, in one nightly reporting meeting I witnessed, regional field director Ryan Donohue started with three questions for all his organizers: “Did you have a Caucus 101 meeting today?” “How many people were you expecting to show up?” “How many people did you actually have?” In the case of a discrepancy, organizers were asked to explain what happened.

In one of these upper-level meetings I visited, word was handed down by Marshall of new internal polls showing Obama surging in Nevada. And rumor had it that all bets were off, even in Iowa. No more inevitability. And intelligence about the Obama campaign pointed to massive turnout on their part.

Marshall explained to his bleary-eyed regional directors that the vote goals for all precincts therefore had to be revised. In other words, the goal post for all organizers had suddenly moved much father away. The regional field directors looked to be in various states of anxiety. But there was no sense of depression or despair. They were part of a well functioning organization. They knew the next step. They knew exactly what they had to do the next day, because they had just detailed their plan to their field director in the meeting.

Finally, getting close to 11:00 PM, Marshall would then report the progress of the past 24 hours in detail to state director Mook.

Look at this picture from her Las Vegas field office:

Notice what you don’t see: a photo of the candidate, inspirational quotes or basically anything peripheral to mission. Notice what you do see: calendars, work plans, charts for disposition of forces. Do you see how neatly written the title on the flip-chart is? – that’s an expression of how important they think the “Caucus 101” meeting is.

Also note that they’re not robots, but are called upon to achieve tactical innovations in support of a clearly-understood overall goal. Every productive technical innovation I’ve ever been part of was executed in exactly this setting: 5 guys sitting in some crappy windowless conference room at 11 o’clock at night trying to figure out how to overcome some challenge that, despite a bunch of HQ-type PowerPoint slides, nobody really has any idea how to meet.

You want to go up against this with a bunch of speeches? – lotsa luck. It’s hard to win a competition with a completely dysfunctional strategy, but mediocre strategy + excellent execution = victory.

People who write for a living tend to get caught up in riveting stories of emotionally-charged vision overcoming superior organization, but in my experience this isn’t usually the way the world works. Morale, commitment and so forth are normally central to success, but only when focused through the vehicle of well-directed hard work. Sublimation of emotion is the core of Western success in war, and it is a key to our collective self-image in competition.

Hillary Clinton strikes me as one of the clearest examples of sublimation we have on the public stage. (Bill Clinton, maybe not so much.) In an earlier era she probably would have become a nun. Her identity today is clearly bound up with this idea that she will accomplish what she sees to be important social goals by simply outworking her competitors.

Watch the video of her victory speech after the New Hampshire primary. After the “I found my own voice” line, it is surprisingly flat, and there is only one word during which she expresses what sounded to me like real emotion: “grit”.