Joe Slade White has been a political consultant specializing in advertising and media for forty-six years. He founded his firm, Joe Slade White and Company Communications, when he was 23 years old. He served as a chief strategist for former Vice President Joe Biden and was named the 2014 “National Democratic Strategist of the Year” by the American Association of Political Consultants.
Harvard Political Review: You started your political consulting firm when you were 23. What drew you to political consulting?
Joe Slade White: Boredom. I was a twenty-one-year-old kid on the McGovern for President campaign out of luck. It could have been somebody else. They just handed me a tape recorder, and I ended up being the kid on the zoo plane whose job it was to tape everything he said. We crisscrossed the country nonstop. Even though I was only 22, it nearly killed me. It’s just an insane schedule. After the campaign, they asked me to stay on as his press secretary, which was also insane because nobody my age should have been the press secretary for a US senator.
There’s sort of a syndrome after a campaign where you are going ninety miles an hour, and all of a sudden it’s over. I call it the roadrunner syndrome because in the roadrunner cartoons the coyote would go off the cliff. Would he fall immediately? No. He would look at the camera, down at the Grand Canyon, [back] at the camera, and then he’d [fall]. That’s what happens after campaigns. I’m 22, I don’t even know why I’m upset, and I thought, “Well, what I did for the campaign is innovative and new. I bet I could go out and do this for other Democratic candidates like congressmen and senators.”
People will say, “Why did you think at 23 you could start your own company?” And I said, “Well, I was crazy, stupid, and arrogant.” The neat thing about 23 is often you’re stupid and arrogant. You’re too young to know better. Nobody told me I couldn’t do that, so I started my own firm, and starved for about two years, pounding the marble because nobody would do it until someone else did. Eventually, a wonderful congressman named Mo Udall hired me, and then people would say, “Well who else is doing it?” And I would say, “Mo Udall.” And they’d say, “Oh, must be good, I’ll do it too.” Then I started doing radio ads, and I was the kid doing radio ads with the older generation doing television. I never worked for them, but I worked on campaigns with them, and so I got to learn from Bob Squire, learn from David Sawyer, learn from all these people about film and television and ads. Then someone asked me to do a television ad, and then I started doing television.
HPR: Your book, “The Nine Principles of Winning Campaigns” has been called the “groundbreaking guidebook to contemporary campaign media strategy.”
JSW: Did I write that quote? I don’t know if I did. No, I’m teasing.
HPR: How did you narrow down all of this experience to nine principles?
JSW: Well, it is a funny story. Over the years, I would have a thought about something that would happen in a campaign or a piece of strategy or something, and I scribble it on a legal pad. There were bits and pieces of paper all through my desk of these little thoughts. Somebody saw what I was thinking about and said, “You should really organize this. You really should do this somehow.” The Naval Academy is where we stole the idea. The Naval Academy has something called “The Nine Principles of Warfare.” All the new shipmen at the Naval Academy are taught the nine principles.
I organized all these little sayings, thoughts, and experiences based on various subtexts beneath it, and it was fun. Originally, it was done inside my firm as a training manual for people who had joined the firm about how I thought and what I thought about strategy. Eventually, a Republican consultant came to me and said, “Joe, you know what? Tattered copies of Xeroxes are being passed around of the famous Joe Slade White Nine Principles.” That’s why we ended up making them available. It’s on my website. You can download it.
HPR: You’ve participated in several upset elections, such as that of Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois. How do you go about handling a campaign when you know that your candidate is the underdog?
JSW: Number one, I love campaigns where the candidate is the underdog because when they lose, you’re never blamed. I’m drawn to it. It’s more challenging, more interesting. There are consultants [whose] entire practice is re-electing incumbent members of Congress, and I go, “Well, that’s boring.” Only about one percent of them ever lose. With the Pat Quinn campaign, it was not atypical of my practice.
There was a young man running the campaign, a certain consultant who had worked on Barack Obama’s campaign. They were doing fairly mediocre. The campaign manager said, “We just have to fire him. Who should we hire? Let’s hire Joe Slade White.” I get a call, and they go, “How would you like to do Pat Quinn’s re-election campaign?” I say, “Fine.” They’re up against a multimillionaire who’s going to spend whatever it takes, but that’s fine. It actually focuses you. You know you have to act fast.
In this case, they were up against an unknown state senator, but Pat Quinn had succeeded to governor because the previous governor had been sent to prison. In the polls and in their ads, they would run three negative things about him. One of them was that he was totally against a ban on assault rifles, even near schools. The first ad we did showed this horrible black and white image of an assault weapon going across the screen, and the voice said, “This weapon is not used to hunt deer or hunt ducks. It is used to kill people. Bill Brady wants to keep that on there.” And Pat won.
I like underdogs. There’s a pressure. One of the things I say about Republican campaigns is that they have so much money usually that they try to do everything, and if you try to do everything, you’re going to do some things wrong. When you’re a poverty-stricken underdog Democratic campaign, you don’t have many choices, so you’ve got to figure out what you can do right and execute that.
HPR: Your firm has historically represented progressive candidates and issues. Why?
JSW: It is who I am, for one thing. There are three cliche cocktail party questions people will ask me when they find out what I do for a living. One of them is that people really think that it’s a money thing, and you’re a horrible, rotten person who gets up every morning and thinks, “What can I do to screw up democracy today?” The question is always, “Would you work for just anyone or do you have to believe in them?” Number one, I’ll always work for Democrats because you have to choose one side or the other. They won’t trust you if you go back and forth. There are a couple who did, but you can’t.
Number two, I’ve got to believe that I would vote for the person I am working for. If I didn’t believe I would vote for them, it would not only be morally wrong, but it would not have good ends usually, so I’ve got to join them. The third question is, “What do you do the rest of the time?” People are only aware of campaigns the two weeks before an election. People will be hiring me now for two years from now.
HPR: Should firms only support candidates with which they agree ideologically?
JSW: Any firm can do whatever it damn well pleases. I’m not out to reform the world or tell people that they can or can’t do anything. I mean I suppose what could happen is a firm can say, “I am only going to do environmentally correct people, some of whom are Republicans.” There are interest groups who, for legal tax reasons, have to be open to either party, but they have criteria. I think as long as people have criteria. I just don’t think it works very well because candidates need to trust you. They’re trusting you with their lives essentially, and if they think you just work for anybody, that violates that.
HPR: What has been the most rewarding win of your career?
JSW: A woman member of Congress, a representative named Betty McCollum: when she hired me, her job was selling carpet in the basement of Dayton’s Department Store in Minneapolis. It was the same election cycle that I think Mark Dayton was US Senator. My joke was that I would rather work for the woman in the basement than the guy whose name is on the giant sign. But she really believed, and it was the 2000 election cycle.
In 1998 I said to the firm, “I’m tired of this. I’m tired of the campaign managers whining. Next cycle, we’re going to do something we’ve never done before. We’ve made enough money with corporate subsidizing. None of you are getting fired. But we’re only going to work for candidates we believe in. We’re only going to work for a handful of them. We’re going to get back to our roots when it was fun.” Betty was one of those faces. When she won, I called her up, and I said, “I’m really glad to inflict you on the House of Representatives.”
It’s very important for anyone in this business to not get a swelled head, and of course we all have swelled heads and think we’re too important. If you do that, you lose touch with being able to communicate, but there are a few times when I did something because I believed in it and [the candidate] changed history. It’s a neat feeling, not because I’m Mr. Big or I’m better than anyone, but to do something that you really believe in.
You were talking about Pat Quinn. His brother called me up after the election and said, “Joe, I know that we did this for all the reasons, and political reasons and everything else, but I think you should know that Pat just commuted the sentences of everybody on death row. Those people would have died.” Brady was for the death penalty. “Us electing him kept those twelve people alive.” I go, “Wow, that’s kind of crazy.” But as I say, I am just so enormously lucky, and now that I’m in my semi-retirement, I’m going back to what I said in 2000, just working for some people I like and having the time to come to Harvard and enjoy myself a bit.
Image Source: Flickr/jswco
This interview has been edited and condensed.