A UMBC Public Policy grad talks about his view of the 2008 campaign from the nerve center of Republican nominee John McCain’s headquarters.
Benjamin Lloyd ’05 M.P.P. public policy, did better than get in on the ground floor of Arizona Sen. John McCain’s rollercoaster ride to the Republican nomination. He got involved at the very nadir of the campaign, when a nearly-toxic combination of financial profligacy and low poll numbers had nearly buried McCain’s presidential hopes.
In August 2007, Lloyd climbed aboard McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” when the press had already written off the candidate as a serious competitor. Thus, Lloyd was both a witness to – and an active player in – the improbable resurrection of McCain’s candidacy, his triumph over a host of rivals for the GOP nomination and a topsy-turvy general election campaign which ultimately ended in defeat for McCain.
And Lloyd himself? He rose from volunteer to a paid position in the campaign as the manager of the night shift in McCain’s “war room” – monitoring news coverage, blasting out press releases and taking the pulse of the media’s posture toward the candidates.
Lloyd, who took his undergraduate degree from Towson State University, also works for Harford County government as an agricultural marketing assistant. But he’s optimistic that his experiences are going to help launch a career in electoral politics in the near future. He talked with UMBC Magazine in late November about his wild ride with a maverick presidential candidate.
How and when did you get involved in McCain’s campaign?
August 2007. It was right after the campaign had fallen on dead times and spent all their money and had fallen to the low single digits (in the polls). I had always been a fan of McCain’s, and with me not doing much at the time – odd jobs and actually working on my family’s farm – I figured that I’d just help him out for awhile. I still thought he could pull through.
What was the atmosphere like when you walked in the door?
The media was on a death watch. Is he going to drop out? When I started, you could tell that a lot of stuff had been packed up. A lot of people had left. There had been 100 people working there, but when I showed up it was 20 or 30.
The people who remained were definitely McCain loyalists. We still thought we could pull it out. It was a long shot, as far as him getting the nomination, but the people who were left were the true believers. Pretty much everybody was unpaid, just offering their time.
What was your first assignment?
I started right off working in the war room, doing media monitoring on the campaign. I was watching all the TV, reading pretty much every newspaper in the country. Getting that information to the senior staff… Of course, when I started it was more bad news than good. But over time, as we started creeping up in the polls, it got much better.
First thing we would do in the day is put together what we called the “morning matrix” — all the newspaper articles from that morning relating to the campaign, and other big time national stories and international stories. It had maybe 200, 300 stories, with hyperlinks to the text of it. That’s pretty much the first e-mail that everyone in the campaign would get – around 5 a.m.
We’d be doing this every night. Then through the day, we’d also send out individual e-mails about stories that popped up during the day, blogs, and TV segments. Our operation would send out what we called “McCain News Alerts” – about 300 of those a day. We sent out over 500 on a debate day. It was a 24-7 operation.
What were the hours like?
Towards the end of the campaign, I managed the overnight shift, which was from 11 p.m. to 7 in the morning. So then I’d come home, sleep for a couple hours, and then I was also working part-time for Harford County government, so I put in about 3 hours a day there, and then I’d head back down (to Crystal City, Va., where the McCain headquarters was located.) It was like one long day. It was tough to tell when one day ends and the next begins. It was rough.
When did you start thinking that McCain could pull it off?
It was when we started creeping up (in the polls) in New Hampshire that people really started to notice. We didn’t really compete much in Iowa, but we tied for third with Fred Thompson, which was enough to get us good press.
The day after Iowa, we had a big event in New Hampshire, and we got really good press that day. We could all tell the tide was turning. And the night we won New Hampshire, we knew we were in this thing.
We had been favored in New Hampshire. But the moment I knew we could do it was when we won South Carolina – which McCain had lost in 2000 to George W. Bush, and it was pretty ugly. I knew then that we were probably going to do this thing.
After we locked it up, we slowly started getting more staff. We had more money coming in. People started getting paid who hadn’t been paid for a long time. Myself included.
When did you start getting paid?
I started getting paid in May. I never stopped working for Harford County – 20 hours a week. And I was doing 50 or 60 hours down in D.C.
We started getting more people on staff: people who came in from other campaigns and from the RNC. It was interesting to watch the dynamics of that. People who weren’t entirely loyal to McCain interacting with the McCainiacs. Usually it was fine. You heard stories that it wasn’t always good, but that I think you see that in any campaign when the party comes together and new people come in.
You worked in the war room, monitoring all the press coverage. McCain always called the media “his base” and gave the press tremendous access. But press coverage of his candidacy did get rougher as the year progressed – and access to the candidate tightened. It was sort of a “chicken/egg” question as to which came first. When did you notice a change in the tone of press coverage?
We saw an immediate turn after we had wrapped up the nomination. I know that a lot of people think it was senior staffers putting the clamp on (press access) and certain aspects of that. But I don’t think it was that at all. It started well before that. I think a lot of people felt that despite the access that we were giving, we weren’t getting fair press at all in a lot of areas.
Was it a matter of the press being negative to McCain, or just too positive about Obama?
I don’t necessarily think it was a lot of negative stuff. It was looking at how the press was covering Obama. We were getting more scrutiny than he was. Our senior staff felt that the press should be looking at certain aspects of Obama’s record, and they didn’t feel that the press was looking at Obama hard enough.
If you had to give the media a grade, what would it be?
I would give them an incomplete. I’m not saying that they had to be negative about Obama. I just don’t think they looked at his record nearly as much as they did John McCain’s — or any major party nominee that I can remember… His votes, his record, his policies for the future of America.
Were you as in the dark about the selection of Sarah Palin as the vice-presidential nominee on the day after the Democratic convention as everyone else?
We didn’t know it was going to be her until that morning.
I was excited about the pick and it really did give us a bump. Especially after her speech at the convention. You look at that period from the first week of September until September 18, when the economy fell apart. And then that was it. As hard as we could fight after that, there really wasn’t anything we could do.
How did headquarters react to the Palin pick?
The day after the (Democratic) convention, there were some snap polls that showed that (Obama) had opened up a double digit lead – a convention bounce. The rollout of Palin really quelled their bounce. In terms of the way we rolled her out, it was brilliant, really.
It not only energized conservatives. It at last got us good press and good news. It caused people to give us a second look.
What was your take on the press coverage of Palin – especially the close guarding of her interviews?
You have to put her out to the press. You can’t keep her under wraps. And, in my position, I got to see not only the national interviews that everyone saw, but also the one-on-ones she did with local TV. She would do sometimes three of four of those a day in smaller markets in swings states. She’d sit down with a reporter from Dayton, Ohio or Tallahassee, Florida, and she did great. I really wish we could have exchanged those for the ones she did with (ABC’s Charles) Gibson and (CBS’s Katie) Couric.
(Palin) really knows her stuff. She’s quick with policy. In some of those first big national interviews, maybe she was trying to measure her words too much. And she came out garbled. She really is better than she came across in the Gibson and Couric interviews.
What effect did the three debates between Obama and McCain have in your view?
Obama is such a better speaker. I think even McCain would say that Obama is a better speaker, is more eloquent. We knew we weren’t going to win a debate on style…. Maybe Obama did a little better in the three debates but that was mostly on style. On substance, I thought that all three debates were a draw.
What was the atmosphere like at the end of the campaign?
I think everybody thought that we were the underdogs, but that we could still somehow pull it out. It felt like it was out of our hands at that point. We were having to hope for Obama to really screw up. We thought we had something with Joe the Plumber and “spreading the wealth around,” but nothing seemed to stick.
How did you spend Election Day?
We were hoping for the best, but ready for the worst. We watched the returns come in, sent out our news alerts. We were also on the lookout for voter fraud, voter suppression stories.
About 11 p.m., when they called it for Obama, we started breaking out the whiskey, I guess. We had whiskey and champagne on hand, and the whiskey’s what got drank.
I think everyone felt good about what we’d done. We didn’t feel like we could have done anything else, especially with the economy. The script was written for us.
And then the next day, we just trickled in and helped packed up. Turn in all our keys. It wrapped up fast.
What are your reflections on the entire experience?
Being part of the campaign was the best thing I’ve ever done. I’m glad I did it.
My advice to anyone who wants to get in on a campaign is to get in early. That’s how you can really get to know people and move up. I started out unpaid. An intern, really. And by May, I was a manager of the war room, which is a really cool job. Probably the best job in the whole campaign as far as I’m concerned. Especially if you’re someone who loves to watch the news and read newspapers. You’re basically getting paid to do that, and to do that for John McCain, whom I’ve always admired. I voted for him back in 2000, in the first presidential campaign I could vote in. It was really a dream come true.