Matthew Dowd is a man of letters – and of numbers. A mastery of both is a pre-requisite for anyone who, as Dowd did for over 100 elections, seeks to guide a candidate towards success on Election Day.
His knowledge and understanding of polling data and his ability to craft a winning strategy (he served as chief strategist on the re-elections of President George W. Bush in 2004 and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006) meant that he was rarely away from the hustle and bustle of an election campaign.
Now, though, he has stepped away from the trail and can be found pursuing a range of different interests. These include being a regular columnist on various publications, a visiting fellow at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics and the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California, and the chief political analyst for ABC news.
Although the ups and downs of the respective presidential candidacies make for compelling viewing and discussion, Dowd believes that, once elected, those candidates vying for votes lower down the ticket are actually better placed to achieve more of their objectives. “I’ve come full circle,” he admits. “I started my career doing local races and then went all the way up to a presidential campaign, but I’ve come to realise that much of the innovation and imagination on solving today’s problems is primarily getting done at the local level – both city and state.”
Many factors lie behind this reversal, he continues, starting with the sense that those who inhabit Washington, DC’s corridors of power are too remote from the day-to-day needs of Americans. “People don’t trust anything and anyone too far away, which means they don’t trust the federal government to do its job,” he says. “And times are changing. Take the rise of social entrepreneurialism around the country. There are young, engaged people who just want to get on with solving problems and not wait for what they see as old and broken institutions to step up any more. We’re in a time where the smaller and less hierarchical the organisation, the more ability they have to get the job done.”
State and local mayors can also benefit from the relative lack of partisanship that exists at their level of government, he says. As Mayor Annise Parker of Houston can attest, the gridlock so common within the beltway is far less prevalent in other US cities. “When you’re in a local situation you have greater direct interaction with the people who are affected by your policy,” Dowd points out. “And so you hear from them and you see them on a daily basis. You’re actually in their neighbourhoods and this reflects the fact in most cities around the country you achieve power by consensus, rather than party.”
The media, too, carry much weight, says Dowd, who believes their influence has seen the partisan divide grow ever wider in recent years. “Locally, you don’t have a Fox News on one side and an MSNBC on the other – both polar opposites – pushing their respective parties to certain places,” he explains. “You don’t have a media environment that creates this bitterness. It’s really a combination of these factors that enables cities and states to do more. And this means that cities and states are where all the innovation in solving problems is really happening.”
“What do we do now?”
Dowd believes that the inability of federal policymakers to get things done is opening the door to a wider movement for change. “We’re probably going to move to a political model that doesn’t look like it does today,” he says. “We have a democracy at the federal level that is broken, and there is an increasing frustration that the two established parties at the federal level are not meeting the needs and dreams of the average person. There is also an increasing perception that they are serving their own interests and not the country’s interests.”
Change, when it comes, will start from the ground up, he predicts. “It will grow locally and then build nationally,” he says. “I think 2016 has a good chance of being an accelerator to that process because there will be frustration among voters about who they have to choose from. I absolutely think that within 10 years the political system is not going to look anything like it does today.” Technology is aiding and abetting this process, he adds. “The barriers to communicating and getting things done are way lower than they’ve ever been. There is now no limit to the number of people you can communicate with simply by clicking a mouse, which before you had to spend millions of dollars to do – and this is really going to change how this will unfold.”
This changing era means that old techniques – like mass television advertising – no longer possess the impact that they once had. “I’ve been preaching on this for 10 years or more,” says Dowd. “The money being spent by campaigns is being totally wasted – firstly because people aren’t tuning in in the same way so they don’t even see the commercials as much. And secondly there is such a general cynicism about television advertising – people see it as inauthentic. Jeb Bush is a perfect example. His campaign has spent $20 million in Iowa and New Hampshire and hasn’t moved a number.”
From his time in the boardroom – Dowd has been an active entrepreneur in Austin, Texas for more than 20 years – and having worked closely with more than 100 election candidates, he is well positioned to comment on what blend of personality traits make an effective leader. How can one carry the day, in the ballot box and in a business deal? Similarities abound between the two, it transpires.
“What I have discovered along the way is that very much the same qualities can make one successful in both business and politics,” he says. “To maximise your impact you need to have an inherent understanding of what it is you want to say and do, and you are able to communicate this clearly. A successful leader is authentic – not manufactured in any way. And all things being equal, it is usually the most disciplined candidate who wins – the one who makes fewest mistakes, stays focused on what they are doing, and follows the strategy laid out.”
Whether policymakers are looking to win votes and implement change at federal, state or local level, they need to hold onto their long-term vision, while at the same time making necessary tweaks to stay relevant – just like a successful business, he points out. “Having this broad sense of a long-term vision is incredibly important,” he says. “A lot of campaigns mess up by losing sight of this vision along the way and end up immersed in day-to-day tactics and forget why they were running in the first place.”
Dowd – while missing the camaraderie of a campaign – has no plans to forsake his leading spot in the media for the 2016 cycle. However, it is also clear that he is excited by the changes afoot across the electoral landscape. The chance to play a part in these forces reshaping the electoral map may well persuade him back into the arena – watch this space.
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