The craziness inside a campaign bubble

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Lance Trover (left), then senior communications adviser to Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, accompanies Rauner to an event in 2015. | Rich Saal/The State Journal-Register via AP

As Election Day nears, voters are being inundated with TV campaign ads, news stories and those infamous phone calls that drive everyone crazy.

For those who work inside a political campaign, however, another form of crazy unfolds, one that can lead to everyone losing sight of reality.

OPINION

As a veteran of several statewide political campaigns in Illinois, a number of small recent scandals shaking up primary races are a stiff reminder of how quickly life can unravel for those inside a campaign.

Today, for most people, will be fairly normal – wake up, coffee, maybe a workout, go to work, go home.

For political candidates and their staffs, though, today and every day until March 20 will be a battle royale. Each new day means showing up at one event after another, raising money constantly and fixating on things that truly don’t matter – like how many yard signs are in a particular area.

On one of my first trips traveling with Bruce Rauner in 2014, when he first ran for governor, I listened as he seamlessly moved from asking a donor for a sizable donation to calling a staffer back at headquarters to express concern that there weren’t enough yard signs in the Quad Cities area that we were visiting.

Make no mistake, Rauner was neither the first nor last candidate to fall into the trap of believing yard signs win elections.

For staff, analyzing how many phone calls were made and doors knocked becomes a daily obsession. We would monitor every word our candidate uttered, make note of every news story. When we found out something we deemed beneficial, we would circulate the information far and wide in an attempt to control the “narrative” — the daily public story about who’s winning and who’s losing.

Curiously, despite working feverishly to control the narrative, campaigns are quick to tell a reporter they don’t care what the political pundits says.

In fairness, for campaign staffers often working 18 or more hours a day, life is nothing short of a living hell. Men and women who once were quasi-normal human beings become alien life forms surviving on adrenaline, coffee, junk food and booze.

Reality loses out to the bubble in which they live. It becomes easy to lose sight — trust me on this — that today’s debacle does not necessarily mean a campaign is doomed.

In April 2010, a disastrous news story broke that a bank owned by the family of Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias had been taken over by the feds, and many people in political circles became convinced his campaign was over. About a month later, however, it was disclosed that Giannoulias’ Republican opponent, Mark Kirk, a naval intelligence officer, had fabricated some of his military record.

And suddenly the narrative had shifted again.

I have no direct knowledge of what life was like inside the Giannoulias campaign, as I was working for Kirk, but I can assure you that April in the Giannoulias bubble must have looked an awful lot like June in the Kirk bubble.

The stories about Kirk seemed never-ending, and the candidate for all intents and purposes went into a bunker. Internally, the staff became demoralized and engaged in an almost minute-by-minute debate about whether our candidate could bounce back. Friendly discussions became screaming matches, phones were thrown and the normal fight with a political reporter became an all-out war.

Later, we would refer to that month only as “the dark times.”

But outside the walls of our campaign office in Northbrook, life wasn’t so bad. It was a beautiful June. And we all know how the dark times ended. Both Kirk and Giannoulias regained their footing, a vigorous campaign ensued, and Illinois elected its first Republican United States senator in more than a decade.

It’s hard to do, but campaign staff would be well served to remember that not every negative news story or tough moment is the end of the world.

Come March 20, the voters in the Republican and Democratic primaries will do their part. And on the very next day, March 21, a lucky few candidates will begin the fight for the big prize.

Meanwhile, in the real world, it’ll be what most folks refer to simply as Wednesday.

Lance Trover is a communications strategist for Tusk Strategies in Chicago. He previously served as a senior communications adviser to both U.S. Senator Mark Kirk and Governor Bruce Rauner.

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