WASHINGTON -- For Liz Mair, it took only a few months-old tweets to get her bounced from a presidential campaign. She insulted Iowa -- the first-in-the-nation primary state that enjoys an outsized influence on politics -- and that was enough to bring an end to her one-day term as an adviser to Gov. Scott Walker.
Mair is just one in a recent spate of campaign staffers, some of whom play no role in shaping the policy of the candidates who hire them, to find their social media activity at the center of a controversy, resulting in swift job loss.
In the “olden days,” the public would have likely never known (or cared) what some campaign staffer had to say about Iowa or abortion or gay rights. But with the rise of social media has come increased scrutiny of staffers, many whom have made their opinions known long before they ever started talking to the candidates who would ultimately hire them. A litmus test of sorts is now being applied to staff just the same as a candidate, and if they're found out of step with their boss, critics and opponents are quick to point it out.
Prognosticators and political observers have long warned of the day when old Facebook and Twitter posts make it impossible to any suitable candidates for public office. But that fear has become a reality long before millennials have reached the age they're eligible to run for office. And in a problem that transcends partisan lines, campaigns are now being forced to grapple with the public relations nightmare that ensues when a staffer becomes the center of attention for all the wrong reasons.
“It kept me up at night,” said Rep. Steve Israel, of New York, who for the past four years ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that is responsible for coordinating all the party’s House campaigns. “What a candidate may do or may not say, I could always deal with. What was unmanageable was what a staffer would tweet that we could never get back.
“We’re in a new world now. Where the youthful indiscretion [used to ] be inhaling some pot, now the youthful indiscretion is blurting something on Facebook, and that is literally coming back to haunt people, whether you’re applying for a job or trying to run a campaign or you’re a candidate yourself.”
So far in this election cycle, several hires by likely 2016 candidates have found themselves at the center of controversy as opponents and reporters uncovered Twitter and Facebook posts that were called into question.
This week it was Mair. The conservative website Breitbart quickly homed in on several of her previously stated positions -- that she’s pro-gay marriage, pro-choice, and favors comprehensive immigration reform.
In other news, I see Iowa is once again embarrassing itself, and the GOP, this morning. Thanks, guys.
— Liz Mair (@LizMair) January 24, 2015
But the real attention was paid to tweets Mair had posted about Iowa. Mair had been critical of the voters' interest in government subsidies, both energy and agriculture. It’s not a new criticism of the state. But the state’s largest paper, the Des Moines Register, quickly jumped on the story. And pretty soon Republican officials in Iowa were calling for Walker to cut ties. Mair resigned the same day.
Mair said she wasn’t totally surprised that she faced scrutiny for her Iowa tweets and suspected the source was Democratic opponents. In fact, as someone who has been a blogger and worked in opposition research, Mair said she has a certain amount of respect for those who working against her.
The sooner we remove Iowa's frontrunning status, the better off American politics and policy will be.
— Liz Mair (@LizMair) January 24, 2015
“My approach is to be who I am and do it publicly and without any effort to conceal things,” Mair told International Business Times. “It helps me do my job because of the media I work with, and it’s transparent. Others take a different approach, but still frequently are the subject of opposition research drops involving their personal life, social habits, consulting fees, clients, bankruptcy history and so on.”
Mair said she does worry the experience could scare away strong potential staffers. Her inbox quickly overflowed responses, mostly positive, but also with hate mail and the response on social media was at times brutal.
“I worry that the inundation that occurs in one’s inbox and notifications when these kind of stories pop up and everyone wants to get your take or see if you want to comment or praise you or trash you will scare off people who would be good staffers,” Mair said.
— Liz Mair (@LizMair) January 22, 2015
Mair wasn’t the first. Jeb Bush hired Ethan Czahor, co-founder of Hipster.com, to serve as chief technology officer for his PAC, which is functioning as an assembly ground for his likely presidential campaign staff. But Czahor was gone before he could even get in the door after it was revealed he had deleted tweets referring to “sluts” and belching at the gym being proof he was straight.
“While Ethan has apologized for regrettable and insensitive comments, they do not reflect the views of Governor Bush or his organization and it is appropriate for him to step aside,” Bush’s PAC said in response. “We wish him the best.”
In January, the Daily Beast took aim at a Rand Paul staffer who was hired to orchestrate the senator's social media presence for his likely campaign. Scores of Marianne Copenhaver’s old Facebook and Twitter posts were scrutinized in an article featuring a picture of her with Paul and the headline “Guilt by Association.” But Paul didn’t ditch Copenhaver as a staffer in response to the piece.
The pressure turned quickly from the staffer to the candidate. In Mair’s case, the issue became whether Walker agreed with her about Iowa (he doesn’t). And in the hyper-political atmosphere of building a campaign, it’s no surprise the candidates have mostly all been quick to cut ties.
“In politics, increasingly, candidates and officials are being held responsible for the comments — past and present — of anyone they employ. Staffers can also be connected to all those candidates who have employed them in the past, and they can be criticized for out-of-the-mainstream positions taken by their past employers,” said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia.
And with social media providing a nearly inescapable catalog of every position someone has ever taken, it’s hard for staff to run away from the statements of their past.
“Hypocrisy is yet another dimension of the social media reality,” Sabato said. “It’s hard to switch positions on any hot-button issues today, and you have to defend positions with which you were associated while working for another candidate or public official who may have had different views than the one you are working for currently.”
One key for those staffers is that they weren’t in policy roles. They were being hired to advise on how to best utilize Facebook and Twitter, not to craft tax plans or put together policy positions. The likelihood that any of them would affect a candidate’s position is minimal.
Politicians overwhelmingly agree with that sentiment; they don’t want a staff that is in lockstep with every one of their policy positions.
“We often differ on policy positions. I think they have respect for mine, that doesn’t mean we are in lockstep accord,” Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said. “I wouldn’t want a staff that marches in lockstep with my opinions. I want independent judgment, and I want people to feel free their views with me even if they contradict my own.”
But as staffers' opinions become more public, it does offer a potential filter for campaigns. One problem with those who feel comfortable making such public declarations is that they are unlikely to mesh with campaign culture, a Republican strategist said.
“Most people with a Facebook page could never hold a senior staff position on a winning campaign, that’s exactly the point. It’s not that you have to be an angel,” the strategist, who has worked on multiple presidential campaigns, said. “A leadership position on a presidential campaign is no place for an 'over-sharer' on many levels and overwhelmingly the folks that have been booted or criticized deserved it. The ideal campaigner is someone who is very good at expressing and amplifying someone else’s opinion often discretely; outspoken and overly opinionated folks don’t do well in that environment.”
Some of the attention is the doing of the staffers, Republican strategist Joe Brettell said, saying that campaigns would be smart to prevent such flaps.
"High-level staff now bring a personal brand that, at least in political circles, results in a transaction more resembling a corporate merger than a hiring of help,” Brettell said. "As a result, campaigns would be wise to identify and neutralize issues before they start, ensuring the nominee, who is the actual star, remains the story."