Rick Perry’s Secret Weapon in the 2012 Presidential Race

The Texas governor’s swagger is tempered by a crack team of operatives. Michelle Cottle on his strategist.

Quick! What’s the first word that leaps to mind when you think of Texas governor turned presidential wannabe Rick Perry: cowboy? Bible-thumper? gun-toting, trash-talking, Tea Partying zealot?

I have another one for you: disciplined.

Not comfortable with that? How about “focused”—or “empirically minded”?

As Perry races up the polls to become the latest Republican “it” candidate, Democrats and GOP pointy-headed types are unloading both barrels on Governor Goodhair for his loose lips, Texas swagger, and all around anti-intellectual, brass-knuckles political style. When Perry suggested that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke would be treated “pretty ugly” down in Texas, Karl Rove publicly derided the governor’s remarks as unpresidential. From a poll position in the low single digits, rival candidate Jon Huntsman has had even more fun gigging Perry’s statements on evolution, climate change, and secession.

But in between their snickering and sneering, critics would do well to get serious about dealing with Perry. The governor may come across as a rodeo clown, but when it comes to campaigning, he has a long, proud—and undefeated—history of political savvy, respect for experts, and an awesome ability to stay on message.

Among Perry’s key assets is a loyal, long-serving campaign team widely admired, and even feared, across the Lone Star State. Led by veteran New Hampshire operative Dave Carney, Team Perry is shrewd, flexible, ruthless, and—ironically, considering the gov’s fire-aim-ready rep—obsessed with hard data and the science of campaigning. (For details, check out Sasha Issenberg’s new book, Rick Perry and His Eggheads.)

“This is a team that does not go with gut instinct or seat of the pants,” stresses Mike Baselice, who has been Perry’s pollster for more than two decades. “It’s empirical-research driven.”

Carney in particular is “a guy driven by numbers and driven by data in a profession of people driven by instincts,” notes a Republican consultant with close ties to the governor. As a result, he says, the team “understands how to spend campaign resources and where to spend them.”

Despite years in the business—Carney was a special assistant to Bush 41 and a top consultant to Bob Dole’s 1996 White House run—Perry’s key strategist doesn’t accept even the most basic campaign conventional wisdom on faith. “Just because something has been done a certain way before doesn’t mean that’s the way it should be done again,” says Perry veteran and campaign spokesman Mike Miner.

Case in point: in 2006, after reading the wonky Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout, Carney called up the book’s Yale-prof coauthors, along with a couple of other poli-sci academics, and invited the lot of them down to study Perry’s 2006 race and determine what gets people to the polls. Among the group’s notable findings: grassroots organizing is well worth the money, TV spots pack a short-term punch, robo-calls and yard signs are pretty much useless, and newspaper endorsements are actually a net negative, at least for Texas Republicans.

“We found out that, by a 6 to 1 margin, Republican primary voters are less likely to vote for a candidate endorsed by their metropolitan newspaper,” marvels Baselice.

Armed with its findings, Team Perry was ready and raring to stomp Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the 2010 gubernatorial primary.

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Of course, no amount of research will save you if your candidate is a disaster. But here again, Perry is not the half-cocked yahoo his critics assume. Oh, sure, the governor has a mouth on him and is prone to colorful gaffes—such as chalking up the BP oil spill to “just an act of God.” But Texas political watchers from across the spectrum have stressed to me over the years that, come crunch time, Perry buckles down and stays relentlessly on message. And his campaign team works hard to ensure that message is neither too broad, too cluttered, nor too complicated.

“A good messenger understands the landscape and focuses on the one or two things that voters are focused on and care about,” observes the Republican consultant.

It takes time and repetition to “burn in” a message, agrees Baselice, assuring me that, as Perry gears up, “there won’t be a new message every other day.”

Equally important, because the core team has been together so long (Baselice first worked with Perry in 1990, Carney and communications chief Ray Sullivan signed on in 1998, and media guy Dave Weeks has been with him since the mid-’80s, when both were still Democrats), Perry trusts his people enough to get out of their way. “There are candidates out there who like to design their own direct-mail pieces,” chuckles Baselice. Perry, he says, is more of the mind, “That’s your job. I need to go out and meet the voters.”

Notes the loyalist, “This is a team that knows what Perry wants and knows how to get him where he wants to be.”

When need be, that path plows straight into the mud. Like his boss, Carney has a reputation for playing hardball. During Perry’s 2002 race against Democrat Tony Sanchez, the campaign ran ads vaguely linking Sanchez to Mexican drug traffickers who had been caught laundering money through his bank. The thinly veiled racism of the message was heavily criticized—and devastatingly effective.

Now and again, Carney dances right up to the legal line. In a recent profile of the strategist, the Texas Observer details, among other incidents, Carney’s run-in with the Federal Election Commission over his 2004 efforts to get Ralph Nader on the New Hampshire presidential ballot with an eye toward siphoning votes from Democrat John Kerry. Damning reports were issued but no criminal charges filed, and the case was ultimately dismissed.

Now Team Perry will need to bring its A game, and then some. The road to the Republican nomination—not to mention the White House—is far longer and winds through vastly different terrain than anywhere Perry has traveled thus far. And the governor’s cowboy charisma ultimately may not serve him well (or well enough) among the broader Republican electorate.

But these are wild, unpredictable political times. And as Miner gleefully notes, “People continually underestimate him—and those people are home watching reruns of Miami Vice now.”