CORRECTION: The original version of this article misstated the year the Perry campaign brought in four academic researchers; it was 2006. The article also misstated the title of Chad Wilbanks, the Texas Republican Party’s former executive director.
Just three months ago, Dave Carney might have been the envy of the professional political class.
A widely respected consultant, Carney had reemerged with a vengeance after a 15-year hiatus from the national arena. In midsummer, he ditched the sinking campaign of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — a candidate whom he deemed to be not serious — to become top strategist to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the man he had helped elevate from obscure agriculture commissioner to a three-term governor with national clout.
With the conservative electorate thirsting for a dynamic, electable alternative to Mitt Romney, Carney and Perry seemed poised to become the stuff of Washington legend: the new Karl Rove and George W. Bush, James Carville and Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and David Axelrod.
What a difference three months and 11 nationally televised debates make.
The past three months have been less than kind to Carney and his team, as a series of gaffes and missteps have torpedoed the momentum that their candidate once enjoyed. Perry is languishing in the single digits in most opinion polls, while Carney’s former boss Gingrich sits at the front of the pack as the clock winds down to the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3.
Now the question for Carney is, can the “the wizard behind the curtain,” as he’s been called, bring Perry back from the brink? Surprisingly enough, many of Carney’s fellow GOP strategists and former colleagues haven’t counted out the possibility — or Dave Carney — just yet. “He’s very smart, he’s aggressive and he knows this business really well. He’ll keep fighting until they say don’t fight anymore,” said Tom Rath, a New Hampshire-based political consultant who is backing Romney. “No cause is ever lost with Dave Carney.”
Part of Carney’s advantage is that he was born and bred in New Hampshire, the first-in-the-nation primary state that has a history of delivering upsets to candidates otherwise thought dead. Just ask eventual 2008 GOP nominee, John McCain, the senator from Arizona who ultimately prevailed in the Granite State's primary despite dire predictions to the contrary.
Steve Duprey, an unaffiliated New Hampshire Republican activist and a longtime friend of Carney’s, counts himself among his admirers. Duprey believes that Perry can still make a strong showing in the early states if his campaign can play to his strengths — retail politics, and getting up close and personal with voters.
“Iowa and New Hampshire are unique places and sort of require unique styles and strategies. Dave Carney is the perfect one to tailor those strategies,” Duprey said. “If anyone can right this ship, it’s Dave Carney.”
Carney’s track record proves that he is a formidable opponent. He started his career in the 1980s, running field operations for former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, a close friend and mentor (although the relationship hasn’t stopped the governor from endorsing Romney, the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts).
During the 1988 Republican primary race, Carney was dispatched to work on George H.W. Bush’s New Hampshire team, where he took on a significant role in organizing the campaign’s ground game, systematically deploying volunteers and winning over activists, precinct by precinct. His performance was good enough to earn him a job on President Bush’s political team, where he garnered a reputation for being profane, direct, and hard-hitting.
Carney went on to work for two unsuccessful presidential campaigns--Bush’s reelection campaign in 1992 and then former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole’s effort in 1996. After that defeat, Carney retreated to New Hampshire to build his own consulting shop, working on a string of local and state races. He solidified his reputation after he took on Perry as a client in 1998 and guided him through three more successful elections. Those who have worked with and against Carney say that his talent lies not in a single telltale tactic, but in a wide-ranging playbook and his whatever-it-takes pluck.
In 1999, when Tom Eaton—who would eventually become the president of the New Hampshire State Senate—was running his first race, Carney went on the airwaves hammering Eaton’s opponent for having the audacity to go negative. But then, just few years later, Carney himself had a hand in one of the most negative strikes of the election season. He ran an ad linking Democrat Tony Sanchez, who was running against Perry in the 2002 gubernatorial race, to money-laundering by drug cartels and the murder of a Drug Enforcement Administration agent. Sanchez’s association with those events was tangential, at best.
Carney is so focused on results that when Perry was running for reelection in 2006, the campaign brought in four academics to scientifically study the effectiveness of various tools of persuasion. That research led Carney to devote much of the campaign’s resources to grassroots organizing from then on.
“Dave’s very methodical in his approach to campaigning, and he’s very good at targeting and reading between the crosstabs to identify what a strong message is and how to utilize that message as it relates to the electorate,” said Chad Wilbanks, former executive director of the Texas Republican Party.
Carney’s biggest opportunity this time around might lie in the fact that many primary voters still haven’t made up their minds, said Andy Smith, director of the Survey Center at the University of New Hampshire and an associate political science professor. In a race as tumultuous as this one, anything is possible. “I don’t rule anybody out, because voters aren’t going to decide until the last few weeks of the election,” Smith said. “They’re not paying attention yet. It’s critical to remember that.”
Moreover, the Perry campaign has both the money and the organization — “two legs of the campaign tripod,” as Smith put it — to nudge these still-ripe voters in Perry’s direction. The effects of things like voter contact, ad buys, e-mail, and phone lists won’t be apparent until after the ballots are tallied, he added.
The last tripod leg — the candidate and his ability to deliver a message — has undeniably been the Perry camp’s biggest failing. And plenty of political observers believe that it’s too late for him to prevail. Even the most gifted consultant can only do so much for a flawed candidate.
“People like to ascribe guru talents to political consultants, and I don’t think it’s ever accurate,” said Fergus Cullen, a former New Hampshire GOP chair and a columnist for The Union-Leader in New Hampshire. “The consultant is only as good as his or her candidate.”
Moreover, from the very beginning, the Perry team faced a daunting task: building a national political operation, putting together a sizable war chest, and preparing Perry for a blitz of GOP debates — all in a matter of a few months. It was always a heavy lift.
The Perry campaign’s mistakes “aren’t mistakes of strategy,” Duprey said. “Those of us who know the business know that the strategist’s reputation is not tarnished when the candidate underperforms. I think he can come back and do very well.”