Republican presidential contenders are locked in a behind-the-scenes struggle to secure experienced staff to run core parts of their campaigns, a boon for top GOP firms that are so flooded with requests they might take on multiple candidates.
Jeb Bush's early and aggressive moves to build a team have sent other campaigns scrambling to avoid being left with inexperienced staffers who are ill-prepared for the rigors of a presidential contest. Compounding the problem, candidates will also need well-run super PACs aiding them, further stretching the pool of qualified operatives.
The digital and legal fields are particularly thin, according to more than a dozen Republican strategists. Bush, Chris Christie, and Scott Walker are trying to sign up the same digital firm, IMGE, to aid their online and data efforts. Another one of the few established digital players on the GOP side is considering whether to take on multiple clients in the same presidential primary.
And on the legal side, attorneys with national experience are inviting multiple campaigns to meetings "“ "beauty contests," one Republican lawyer called them "“ before choosing the team they'll play for over the next two years. Established consulting groups in other fields are preparing to be "firewalled," to allow one part of the firm to handle a candidate while another handles a super PAC.
"You're tracking multiple candidates over multiple media markets and states over a short period of time," said one strategist with experience running a super PAC, who did not want to be named discussing campaign hiring strategy. "So operatives running these things have to be competent to do this, and "¦ they don't grow on trees."
Digital poses the biggest staff problem for campaigns. While the need for sharp digital strategy is hardly a new phenomenon in politics, Republicans still suffer a shortage of quality operatives with major campaign experience, especially compared to Democrats. One Republican who works in the field, who did not want to be named discussing campaigns' hiring maneuvers, said some presidential pre-campaigns were asking around about digital strategists even before the 2014 election was over.
"There's a supply-and-demand situation," the strategist said. Without the right attention to digital detail, candidates could miss out on critical fundraising opportunities and new ways to reach voters, especially those who watch less TV.
Another GOP digital firm, Targeted Victory, is mulling whether to take on multiple Republican presidential clients in 2016. The company, which came in for severe criticism after Mitt Romney's expensive but failed 2012 presidential campaign, has rebounded and grown considerably since then—enough so that it could devote resources to multiple candidates. Targeted Victory "is in a unique position, and they already have relationships with so many people," said one Republican consultant.
"With 100 people, we have that ability," said Zac Moffatt, cofounder of Targeted Victory and the digital director for Romney's 2012 campaign. "The question is the comfort level of the campaign and the skill set we're providing. It depends what people mean when they are hiring the firm. "¦ I can envision a scenario where one candidate may use Targeted Victory for online advertising and not for anything else."
Presidential campaigns are on a similarly intense hunt for legal talent. "Most people think campaign legal issues are all FEC, but that's a smaller percentage of the issues to tackle," said one Republican attorney. "There's contracts, ballot access, delegate selection and allocation to name a few. You're basically establishing a $100 million business in a very condensed time frame and not a lot of people have been through that process before and understand all the issues associated with it."
So a select few Republican campaign lawyers are taking meetings with representatives from multiple campaigns each, trying to suss out which would be the best fit. "There is fierce competition," the GOP attorney added.
The legal side of campaigns gets relatively little attention when things are running smoothly, but the occasional disaster shines a light on how important it is. In the 2012 primaries, candidates including Jon Huntsman and Newt Gingrich failed to qualify for the ballot in key states, thus missing any chance to show momentum for their underfunded efforts in those primaries.
"With the number of people contemplating entering the presidential race, there will be a shortage of attorneys who understand all the different issues that a campaign has to tackle," the attorney said. "And with Citizens United and the proliferation of outside groups and super PACs, the world has become even more complex."
Beyond those areas, one GOP strategist with experience running outside groups said the rapid growth of super PACs has added another staff-level piece of uncertainty to the 2016 landscape.
One way the GOP consulting class is trying to spread talent across different levels of the campaign: division. Some big operations are already making plans to erect internal firewalls between people working on campaigns and people helping an outside effort.
That's already in evidence at OnMessage, one of Washington's major Republican firms. Several of the firm's partners are longtime advisers to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, including Timmy Teepell, his former chief of staff, and OnMessage consulted on Jindal's previous campaigns. But if Jindal runs for president in 2016, as expected, OnMessage partner Brad Todd won't be part of that effort because he will be the lead consultant for a newly formed pro-Jindal super PAC, Believe Again.
"There's not a wall because there's not a campaign," Todd said. "I'm just focused on the super PAC and trying to get it off the ground. It'll be ready if he decides to run. And if there is a campaign, I will not be communicating with it."
That's what happened inside Romney's polling firm in 2012, when the same trusted group handled two different sides of the campaign. Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster with the Alexandria-based firm Public Opinion Strategies, ran the former governor's survey research in the last presidential campaign. At the same time, other members of his firm—technically working under a different LLC—handled the polling for Restore Our Future, the super PAC formed to back Romney and savage his opponents in the primary and general elections.
Several Republicans see a long-term upside to the party's current supply-and-demand issue.
"It's an issue but not an insurmountable one," said Rob Jesmer, an experienced GOP consultant and former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "It's going to bring new talent into the system. A year from now, there will be four or five big names no one has ever heard of right now" who will be hot-commodity GOP strategists.
For now, though, campaigns are competing hard with the rest of the crowded field for a handful of established names in key areas.