The late stage Governor Mitt Romney’s campaign in any given primary state have fallen into a pattern: A barrage of negative campaign ads dominate the airwaves. New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu holds a punchy conference call to influence local press coverage. A final group of endorsements and volunteers fill out the state’s leadership team.
And, as the primary closes, Romney’s small SWAT team rolls in: For more than two months, the same half-dozen mid-level staffers have arrived, bedraggled, from the last major contest to take over the state’s field and press operations.
“There is always a state organization into which they go into, and their job is to make it work better,” Sununu, who describes himself as a sometimes-obnoxious freelance agitator, told BuzzFeed.
Ryan Williams, Romney’s furiously efficient national press secretary, and Molly Donlin, the state director in Florida, lead the small group of staffers who have run nearly every important primary victory for the campaign. Their stock inside Romney’s campaign has risen with the series of victories, and even Obama’s team in Chicago says they respect their speed and professionalism ability.
But the decision to run what are effectively pop-up campaigns in the primary states has the downside that when Williams, Donlin, and their team depart, they leave little behind. Romney never built the sort of large volunteer operation Obama’s 2008 primary race assembled in important swing states like Florida and Ohio, and as the general election approaches, he’s likely to be starting from scratch. Some local Obama offices, by contrast, have remained open continuously for over four years. And Obama’s well-funded effort is already building for November. When Romney’s staff moved out of its office in Iowa after a virtual tie in the caucuses in January, the Obama campaign opened an office in Romney’s vacant headquarters.
For now, however, Romney aides say the primaries have raised the stock of Donlin, 29, and Williams, 30, as the Republican finally focuses in earnest on the general election.
Donlin, a 2004 graduate of Xavier University in Cincinnati and former aide to several Midwestern Republican Parties, got her political start running Karl Rove’s vaunted “72-hour” pre-election field program in 2004 in Ohio, and went on to work for the Republican National Committee. She spearheaded Romney’s 13-point victory in Florida, and went on to take the title of state director in several other states, campaign’s field operation in Ohio, Illinois, and Wisconsin — an unusually large number of states, even by the standards of operatives who travel across the country during election years.
Donlin fine-tunes the local organization’s existing volunteer and get out the vote effort, and works to effectively deploy surrogates. One official from a rival campaign who was set to face her in Florida called Donlin “unstoppable.”
Williams, a New Hampshire native nicknamed “Sunshine” for his serious — and at times sour — demeanor, worked for Sununu at the state Republican Party. He began dogging Rick Santorum from event to event in Florida, spinning local and national reporters and bringing Romney supporters along to muddy the message. In Wisconsin, the Santorum campaign became so frustrated with him that the former Pennsylvania press secretary Alice Stewart had him removed from events. He just camped out in the parking lot and reporters came to him.
The Romney campaign’s efficient, roving primary operation, composed of Donlin, Williams, and a few of their deputies, has been a key part of its grinding victory, and of a reliable, almost corporate approach to the chaotic business of politics. That advantage was on display in Wisconsin, where Romney’s aides took a state operation geared toward fighting recall races and turned, temporarily, on Rick Santorum.
State co-chairman Ted Kanavas told BuzzFeed that while Santorum still scrambling just to find volunteers, Donlin was running a tightly-focused get-out-the-vote operation, while Williams worked to unify the campaign’s message.
“They took a national message to a state and local level, which is something I hadn’t experienced before, and something no Republican here has seen since 1980,” he said. “The made us so much more effective.”
Kanavas added that while he and his co-chair Alberta Darling isolated a strong base of economic conservatives in Wisconsin, the Romney team worked to expand his reach among social conservatives outside of the collar counties.
Meanwhile, Romney allies left behind are trying to keep the lights on in the swing states.
Brett Doster, Romney’s senior advisor in Florida who went on to work in Ohio, said that the Florida operation has temporarily slowed as operatives have left the state.
“We have enough [staff] to keep the grassroots going strong. The rest are focused on trying to close out the primary campaign,” he said, expressing confidence in their ability to regain the momentum once the general election kicks into high gear. “I'm in constant contact with our field organization around the state and we can restart that without any difficulty.”
"No aspect of the campaign is more responsible for victories than Mitt Romney himself, and people like Molly and Ryan and the rest of us who are willing to be uprooted from our families for a few weeks is a sign of how strongly Romney is inspiring his team," Doster said. “For the final weeks, it’s critical to have [people] who can bridge Boston and local supporters.”