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Managing A Campaign Takes Blood, Sweat, Tears And A Smartphone

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Over the last couple of weeks in this election season, we have taken you deep into the minds of political operatives. First the ad-makers, then the opposition researchers. And today, the one job that could age you faster than being president of the United States - the campaign manager.

OMAR KHAN: I'm Omar Khan, and I'm the campaign manager for Charlie Crist running for governor of Florida.

MARTIN: Crist used to be the governor of Florida. He wants his old job back. But he has to beat the guy who is in the job now, Governor Rick Scott. The race is neck and neck. So you can imagine the pressure. This is Omar Khan's first time managing a campaign. And no surprise, he is relentlessly on message.

KHAN: If you look at the early numbers, we feel that we're on that path. But we've got to continue on that path. And if anyone's listening, and you have a vote in Florida, you need to 'cause we need everyone to vote to continue us on that path to making sure we are victorious.

MARTIN: Call it confidence, call it optimism. If you don't think you can win, you are probably in the wrong job.

KATIE PACKER GAGE: You have to have somebody that has a real fire in her belly to win and is going to wake up every single day saying how can I win today, and how can I win tomorrow, and what's our plan to win long-term. And they're not going to settle for second place because second place in politics is losing.

MARTIN: That's Katie Packer Gage. She was the deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign. And she's a founder of the Burning Glass political consulting firm. Packer Gage is convinced that a great campaign manager is...

PACKER GAGE: ...Somebody that can speak for the candidate if necessary and is somebody that can be really trusted to execute the campaign strategy and put together the campaign strategy. And, you know, sort of starting from square one, you know, what are our assets? What are our liabilities? What are we going to put out there? What's the message we're trying to convey? What's the point of this campaign? And sort of working with the candidate to make sure that every single thing that you do every day is working towards that goal and delivering that message.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

MITT ROMNEY: We believe in our future. We believe in ourselves. We believe the greatest days of America are ahead.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Believe in the America you built. Believe we can build it again.

ROMNEY: I'm Mitt Romney, and I approve this message.

MARTIN: But building a message and staying on it is just part of being a campaign manager. Depending on the campaign, that same person might have to wear a lot of different hats, especially at the state level.

PACKER GAGE: You know, if you're running a statehouse campaign, campaign manager might be everything. It's the person that's answering the phones. It's the person that's talking to the media. It's the person that's handling campaign compliance.

KHAN: It's managing a huge amount of individuals. And at times, it can be very unpleasant task because your job is to, you know, say no or make the tough decisions so you end up being bad guy a lot. In this role, the buck stops with you.

MARTIN: With that responsibility comes a lot of power. And Katie Packer Gage says it's important that such power should only be used for good.

PACKER GAGE: It's important to maintain your integrity. It can be very easy in politics to try to please everybody and to make everybody happy. And I think you have to sort of know, you know, your compass and follow your compass and not get swayed by that.

MARTIN: And while these campaign managers might be guided by their moral compass, they are ruled by their smartphones.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARDER, BETTER, FASTER, STRONGER")

DAFT PUNK: (Singing) Work it harder make it better. Do it faster makes us stronger. More than ever hour after hour, work is never over.

MARTIN: The work fills every corner of their lives.

PACKER GAGE: At the beginning, I was able to go home every weekend. By Labor Day of 2011, it was every other weekend. By Thanksgiving, it wasn't at all. And it was very disruptive personally. It's completely all-consuming and then, on election night comes screeching to a halt.

KHAN: You know, there's a lot of sacrifices, not just time, but personal, professional. It is a very time-consuming job, but I'm very lucky to be - you know, it's not a job for me. It's something I enjoy doing and wake up every morning wanting to do it more and go to bed every night trying to figure out how I can do it better.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HUNG UP")

MADONNA: (Singing) Time goes by so slowly. Time goes by so slowly.

MARTIN: And what's Omar Khan been thinking about on those sleepless nights?

KHAN: Where do you put the resources? Do you put them on TV? Do you put on field? How do you spend? How much do you spend? How you control the budget, right.

MARTIN: But at this point, those decisions have been made. With close to 48 hours until Election Day, Omar's team, like many around the country, is focused on getting out the vote.

KHAN: And, you know, if you look at four years ago, this race was lost by 61,000 votes. And learning about those lessons, you could say turnout was a factor in that. If we had one percent more of the vote share in the African-American population, you could argue that Rick Scott would not be the governor today. So one of the first strategic decisions I think we had to make was to not go up on TV until very late and to hold for the first four months and take an onslaught of TV, but to instead build in our field program and build in that turn-out operation.

MARTIN: Even if Omar Khan gets the turnout that he wants, Katie Packer Gage warns that you never really know what's going to happen until the last vote is counted.

PACKER GAGE: At a certain point, I believed we were going to win. Right up until about halfway through Election Day, I believed we we're going to win. It was a huge, huge disappointment. And I'd be lying if I said otherwise.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

ROMNEY: I so wish that I had been able to fulfill your hopes to lead the country in a different direction, but the nation chose another leader. And so Ann and I join with you to earnestly pray for him and for this great nation.

KHAN: Downfalls of this job, you know, the highs are high, the lows are low. And so to me, the amount of personal sacrifice and just blood, sweat and tears you put into a role like this is definitely worth it, regardless of the outcome, when you believe in it.

MARTIN: Because once you do this job, especially at the highest level like Katie did, you never really stop believing.

PACKER GAGE: There was a real depression, I think, that set in for me and with others that I've spoken to over the fact that we just really felt like the American people got it wrong, and that they were going to rue the day, and I think they are ruing the day now that they hadn't elected a guy that we really felt was an impeccable character, was incredibly gifted and would have been an outstanding president. And we were just sorry.

MARTIN: Not only do top campaign managers like Katie Packer Gage never stop believing, they never really quit.

PACKER GAGE: It's a little bit like a drug. And I can't say I wouldn't go back to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T STOP BELIEVING")

JOURNEY: (Singing) Some will win. Some will lose. Some were born to sing the blues.

MARTIN: On Tuesday night starting at 7 p.m., you can follow NPR's election coverage on your TV, mobile device, laptop, social media, you name it. Just go to npr.org/electionparty to learn more. You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.