Who’s Sinking Faster: Rick Perry or Dave Carney?

With news of a possible Carney demotion, you have to wonder where he's been this whole time.
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Yesterday, the Perry presidential campaign pushed hard for attention around the governor’s latest endorsement: highly controversial Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio. Instead, most Perry headlines focused on his double-gaffe, getting both the voting age and the election date wrong. 

Less noted, however, was a Politico blog post noting that Perry had approved yet more restructuring on his team, giving former Bushie Joe Allbaugh and Tony Fabrizio more power and leaving Dave Carney, who was the campaign’s chief strategist, to focus on New Hampshire—a state Perry is almost definitely going to lose. The campaign denies the assertions, which Politico credits to unnamed sources. But whether or not Carney’s actually been demoted hardly seems to matter. This presidential campaign has not borne any of his marks.

The common wisdom from most national outlets goes something like this: Perry has easily won every race in Texas because of his conservative Republican credentials. When he actually faced real competition—from the political Justice League of heroes that is the current Republican primary field—he got slaughtered.

Take Alec MacGillis at The New Republic:

Mixed in with all the praise for Carney I heard one cautionary note from several Austin insiders: because of Texas’ shift to one party dominance, Carney and Perry had learned to run a certain kind of campaign: appealing heavily to the narrow band of hard-core primary voters to stave off more moderate Republican challengers (like Hutchison) and then relying on the state’s Republican tilt to hold on in the general election, even if many moderate Republicans stayed home or even voted for the Democrat. It was a turnout operation, with little need for the kind of persuasion of a broader electorate that Perry would need on introducing himself to voters nationally, even just within the Republican primary. And Perry and Carney had been able to set the terms of the contest in ways that just weren’t possible in a national campaign, such as keeping debates to the barest minimum and, in his last campaign, not attending a single interview with newspaper editorial boards.

But even with its flaws, where was that turnout operation that MacGillis shrugs off? In addition to Perry’s stunningly bad debate performances and giddy speeches, the governor’s presidential campaign has also lacked the signature moxie that defined previous efforts and were largely credited to Carney.

In August, I wrote a lengthy profile of the Perry campaign’s chief strategist, a guy who’s spent much of his career in the shadows. It was hard not to be impressed with Carney’s creativity and his willingness to experiment. Central to that impression was Carney’s masterminding of the 2010 gubernatorial primary, in which Perry faced the state’s most popular elected official, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Hutchison had more money than Perry and everyone assumed the only way the governor would win would be in a low turnout primary of party faithful.

But that’s not what happened. Using data gathered by political scientists in 2006, Carney opted to spend much of the campaign’s funds on grassroots organizing. They created the “Home Headquarters” program in which those who signed up promised to recruit 11 other pro-Perry voters and get them to the polls. There was almost no money spent on phone calls, mailers or the usual campaign efforts, which the 2006 data showed to have little effect.. Similarly, Carney held off on television ads until the few weeks before the campaign—the data showed that tv only had short-lived effects and was best used to blast voters just before the election.

Certainly, there’s nothing on Perry’s current site that’s half as innovative as the Home Headquarters idea. (The 2010 home headquarters webpage is actually still live, if you want to see it for yourself.) But then, such grassroots efforts take significant time, and the Perry team got a very late start. 

But instead, the Perry campaign has gone whole hog into the very tactics that it ignored in the 2010 effort. In Iowa and New Hampshire, Perry’s made his biggest mark with television ads. In South Carolina, they’re even doing mailers.

Rick Perry has never been a great policymaker or an inspiring leader, but his campaign, with Dave Carney at the helm, has always had an innovative approach to politics and executing within the inches. Not long ago, Carney himself was frequently been compared to Karl Rove—only smarter and more cunning. 

But all of that seems laughable now. Perry’s repeated gaffes and errors have clearly been the main problem in his campaign. However, the campaign never had any strategy up its sleeve. And with Carney now focusing on almost un-winnable New Hampshire, you’ve got to assume we’ve seen everything the Perry campaign had to offer. Why not hand off the reins to some new guys?

The 2010 approach may not have won Perry a 2012 presidential nomination. But as it seems less and less likely that he’ll win the nomination anyway, one has to wonder if he—and his team—wouldn’t have preferred going down on their own ship, in their own way.