Data Miners Ride Boom-Bust Cycle in Races to Mold Senate

Sarah Benzing is opening a small business that needs to raise more than $10 million in a year and spend almost all of it in less time than that.

She’s one of a rising class of professional campaign managers who, like polling experts and ad makers, are vital to winning statewide contests driven by data rather than the hunches of political veterans.

“It is about managing a complex organization that is the equivalent of a multimillion startup that is going to exist over a limited amount of time and you are going to be judged on a single day,” said Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Benzing and her fellow managers on both sides of the political aisle are on the front lines of state races that will determine which party wins a U.S. Senate majority in 2014.

Republicans are seeking to capture a net of six seats to regain control, while Democrats are defending seven seats in states won by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in last year’s presidential election: Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia.

Steve Blank, a founder or participant in eight Silicon Valley startups who teaches at Stanford University in California, said that campaigns require more sophisticated managers as they become more data-driven operations.

“Data is the new television for politics,” he said.

Obama Campaign

In the 2012 presidential campaign, Blank said President Barack Obama’s effort showed more startup qualities than Romney’s, even though Obama’s was the incumbent campaign. He bases that conclusion on the president’s online efforts that continually tested messaging and made refinements.

Blank said that was somewhat of a surprise given Romney’s experience at Bain Capital LLC.

“They supposedly had built businesses,” he said.

Money management is at the heart of a job that can sometimes come down to this: Buy the clipboards or the chipboards?

That was one of the questions Benzing had to answer when she ran a special-election campaign earlier this year for Edward Markey, now a Democratic senator from Massachusetts.

About 1,000 clipboards were needed for door-to-door volunteers and she balked at their price of $2 each. When an aide suggested paper chipboards that along with binders could act like clipboards at a cost of 50 cents apiece, she was sold.

“You want people to think about the money,” said Benzing, 36, now the campaign manager for U.S. Representative Bruce Braley, an Iowa Democrat running for the Senate.

Iowa Spending

Cecil estimated that Democrats will spend between $12 million and $15 million on the Senate race in Iowa, a figure that will depend in part on outside group spending.

Later this year and next, there will be more significant decisions for Benzing about an advertising budget, hiring employees and parsing the candidate’s time as Braley seeks to keep in Democratic hands the seat held by retiring Senator Tom Harkin.

Those in the business call that aspect of the job “candidate management” and say it’s just as important as watching the money flow.

“There are never enough yard signs near their house,” joked Cam Savage, a Republican strategist who managed the winning 2010 campaign of Senator Dan Coats of Indiana. The signs aren’t always persuasive to voters, yet Savage said candidates tend to like to see a lot of them, especially in their own neighborhoods.

Winning Record

Braley is the fourth Senate race managed by Benzing since 2010. So far, she’s 3-0, after running the campaigns of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York in 2010, Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio in 2012 and Markey in 2013.

“The good ones, the ones who get elected, understand that it’s a partnership,” Benzing said. “I’ve been really lucky. I’ve worked for really good people.”

Benzing examines every expense that moves through the campaign, from mileage reimbursements to advertising buys. She also gets a daily e-mail from her fundraising team so she knows exactly how much money is coming into the campaign.

“These campaigns are larger than a lot of small companies and it’s more difficult in some respects because you are raising every dollar of capital you have, and you have to perfectly spend it without going over,” Savage said. “Juggling the financial piece mostly comes down to the manager.”

The mail’s arrival at the campaign office can be the “most consequential occurrence of any given day” because it contains the latest inflow of checks, Savage said.

Ice-Cream Truck

The strangest expense Benzing ever had to approve was for the rental of an ice cream truck for a final get-out-the-vote rally for Markey.

The candidate had worked his way through college selling ice, so the campaign rented a truck from his previous employer to give out free cold treats on a hot day -- and remind voters of the 18-term House member’s humbler beginnings.

Braley, in his fourth term, is unopposed for the Democratic nomination and has focused on organization and fundraising. During the quarter that ended Sept. 30, he raised almost $1 million, more than the entire Republican field combined. Braley ended the quarter with $2.3 million in his campaign account.

So far, Republicans who have declared their candidacies include state Senator Joni Ernst, former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker, Iowa radio talk show host Sam Clovis, former car dealership sales manager Scott Schaben, attorney Paul Lunde, businessman Mark Jacobs, and David Young, a former aide to U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley.

Republican Debate

Six of the Republicans faced off Oct. 23 for their first time at Drake University in Des Moines in a candidate forum sponsored by Americans for Prosperity Iowa, an offshoot of the national small-government group funded by billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch.

Benzing said she was watching remotely, huddled with team members from her campaign inside a downtown conference room, surrounded by laptop computers, beer and pizza. As the forum played out, the Iowa Democratic Party peppered reporter e-mail accounts with rapid-response statements and their partisan view of the facts.

There’re the makings of a campaign manager club where advice is shared on dealing with employees, reference checks, technology and how to deal with other issues that arise.

Trading Gossip

Benzing said they trade intelligence on outside spending and ad watch information, which can sometimes give her a heads up on what might be coming her way from another state. She says they also discuss informal references and salary ranges for employees.

“Mostly we call each other to check in and see what’s happening and trade gossip,” she said. “It’s comforting to communicate with others who know exactly what kind of stressors you’re dealing with.”

Her first lessons in workplace politics were learned at truck stop near Neola, the small western Iowa town where she grew up. At the age of 16, her cooking and waitress jobs at the Kopper Kettle along Interstate Highway 80 gave her a sense for what it takes to manage.

“You had to learn how to get along with a lot of people,” she said. “You definitely don’t want to upset the cook.”

After graduating in 2000 from the University of Northern Iowa, Benzing worked for former Vice President Al Gore’s campaign for the White House. She became field director for the state party in Iowa in 2002 and in 2004 she joined the short-lived presidential campaign of former Senator Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat.

First Campaign

Benzing ran Braley’s first campaign for Congress in 2006 and after his election went on to become his chief of staff in Washington. In 2008, she went back to politics to work as a national field director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Democrats are fortunate to have veteran campaign managers in many of the competitive races they face next year, including in North Carolina and Louisiana, Cecil said.

“It’s probably one of the most important things that we help our candidates with and Sarah is one of the best,” Cecil said.

Much of the job, Benzing said, simply comes down to being a hands-on leader.

“It’s doing what needs to get done,” she said. “It’s really exciting 20 percent of the time and the other 80 percent it’s just managing. If it helps our team to take the garbage out, I take the garbage out.”

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE