Robby Mook, Clinton's no-drama campaign manager, is sticking to his playbook — and so is his boss

Liz Goodwin
·Senior National Affairs Reporter
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and campaign manager Robby Mook. (Photos: Getty, Brian Snyder/Reuters)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager, Robby Mook. (Photos: Getty, Brian Snyder/Reuters)

The night Hillary Clinton suffered a bruising, 22-point defeat in New Hampshire to Sen. Bernie Sanders, pundits began predicting that the candidate was going to shake up her staff. It looked as if the loss could be a turning point for Clinton and her beleaguered team, who could not seem to break through Sanders’ relentless and simple messaging on economic inequality, even in a state she had won eight years ago.

Anonymous sources told reporters that the Clintons were “not happy” after barely winning Iowa, and were considering booting out and replacing top staffers. Then they got crushed in New Hampshire.

Ominously, it was beginning to look like a repeat of 2008, when Clinton got heartbreakingly close to the nomination, only to lose to an insurgent underdog challenger running to her left, as her campaign staff openly jockeyed with each other for power and leaked their increasingly bitter disputes to the press.

But there was something different about Clinton’s response this time. She surprised her exhausted aides by renting a bigger plane in Manchester, N.H., and inviting a few dozen of them to fly back to New York with her and President Bill Clinton. On the ride back, the former secretary of state gave a brief but resolute pep talk to her troops.

Instead of outlining the major staff changes she wanted, she urged her team to stay the course.

“We’ve got a plan, let’s stick to the plan and go execute,” an exhausted Clinton told the assembled staffers, according to her campaign chair John Podesta.

Hillary Clinton speaks to supporters beside her husband, Bill, and daughter, Chelsea, at her primary night party in Hooksett, N.H. (Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Hillary Clinton speaks to supporters, with her husband, Bill, and daughter, Chelsea, at her side, at her primary night party in Hooksett, N.H. (Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

They were her words, but they just as easily could have been uttered by her young campaign manager Robby Mook, who has run her campaign in a calm, methodical style while staying largely out of the spotlight. Mook, a genial but determined organizer, preached a relentless dedication to the campaign’s original plan for victory from Brooklyn’s headquarters, even as others clamored for big changes. When the political world expected Clinton to choke, she and her campaign manager rode out the wave.

“I really think Hillary is the nominee because Robby Mook did not panic,” former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont told me.

*****

To understand the crucial role Mook has played in this campaign, you have to go back to Clinton’s original 2008 White House bid. It’s hard to overstate the dysfunction of that effort. Clinton demoted her campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, after losing Iowa, and asked her to share the role with Maggie Williams, her former chief of staff. Doyle warred with Clinton’s senior strategist Mark Penn, whom she called “mean” and accused of sucking “the soul and humanity out of this campaign” in an exit memo she wrote when she resigned, according to the book Game Change. President Bill Clinton, meanwhile, ignored the orders of the fractured campaign leadership to stay out of South Carolina, campaigning there and later disastrously complaining that Obama was playing the “race card.”

Most damningly, the campaign ran out of funds by February, shockingly early in the primary, forcing Clinton to borrow millions of dollars. The sinking ship was full of leaks: Campaign memos outlining strategy were published in their entirety in the press, where aides litigated their power struggles via negative headlines. Some top aides seemed more concerned with salvaging their political reputations than helping Clinton win.

After it was all over, Clinton vowed never to run a campaign out of Washington again, associating the place with the poisonous infighting that dogged her campaign.

Patti Solis Doyle, right, manager for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, talks to Leecia Eve, senior policy adviser, in 2007. (Photo: Stephanie Kuykendal/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images)
Patti Solis Doyle, right, manager for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, talks to Leecia Eve, senior policy adviser, in 2007. (Photo: Stephanie Kuykendal/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images)

When she began considering whether to run for the presidency again in 2013, Clinton went through a methodical process of uncovering the mistakes of ’08 and deciding how to avoid them. She was “obsessed” with learning more about what drove Obama’s victory, Politico reported, and knew that she needed a better relationship with the press and dedicated team players at the top of the campaign. She hired consultants to put together strategy memos about how to win.

At the end of the day, she chose Mook an obsessive organizer who is only 36 years old and who had been her Nevada state director in ’08 — as her campaign manager. For her chair, she chose John Podesta, Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff, who later worked for Obama in the White House. Mook and Podesta are like “yin and yang” according to Podesta, who is 30 years older than him. “I’m half Italian and half Greek, which is a volatile combination,” Podesta says. “I probably am a little bit more emotional and he’s a little bit more analytic. I think we probably compensate for each other.” They decided to base the campaign in Brooklyn, far away from Washington and from “people who want to give you a lot of free advice,” Podesta said.

The choices reflected Clinton’s own desire to run a very different kind of campaign — and the fact that she stuck by that choice, even when the going got tough, suggests she’s grown as a candidate and a leader. “She believed in him and reflected that and projected that to the staff,” Podesta said.

“Secretary Clinton is an incredibly smart person who learns from her experiences, and the important thing is that she wanted a campaign that would run differently this time,” said Geoff Garin, a top aide during her ’08 run. “But in seeking that she found the perfect manager in Robby.”

*****

Mook — pronounced like “book” with an “m” — does not come off as a grizzled political veteran. He carries himself with little of the swagger that is common in the world of political operatives. But his low-key, even wholesome demeanor belies a confidence and determination born of more than two decades in politics. As a ninth-grader growing up in Vermont, he volunteered in his first foray into campaigning to help his drama teacher, Matt Dunne, get elected to the state Legislature. Dunne later helped Mook get an internship with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and then convinced his young protégé to dedicate the summer after his freshman year in college setting up an organization to elect Democratic House members in Vermont.

Just a few years later, Mook was tapped as deputy state director for Gov. Howard Dean’s presidential run in New Hampshire — a big job for a 24-year-old. He quickly displayed qualities that would become a hallmark of his career: an ability to inspire loyalty and to make tough decisions with a light touch.

When Mook said he needed someone to run a troubled field office in Laconia, Dunne, his former boss, didn’t think twice. Mook graciously explained to the former director why he was being replaced. Karen Hicks, his boss and mentor at the time, said the office joke about Mook was that “he’s the youngest old man anybody knows.” This reputation came from Mook’s “sensible shoes” and button-downs, but also from his leadership style and work ethic, which showed a maturity beyond his years.

Mook learned much of his current focus on ground game and old-fashioned door-knocking over winning points on cable news on the Dean campaign, which harnessed volunteers in a new way. The campaign was influenced by the ideas of Marshall Ganz, the veteran labor organizer whose grassroots training for Obama’s 2008 run was credited with revolutionizing presidential campaigning. Among other things, Ganz argues that empowering volunteers to canvass and politick for a candidate is more effective than having paid staffers do it.

Mook, a classics major who can read Greek and Latin, approached campaigning with an intellectual rigor, discipline and focus that stood out.

“Campaigns are almost inherently disorganized. There’s this nonprofit-y vibe. Robby brings a strategic level to things,” said Sam Arora, a classmate of Mook’s at Columbia who worked with him on Clinton’s ’08 race.

Arora recalled attending a training of Mook’s after the 2004 election where he used his background in classics to explain to a ragtag group of organizers the Greek and Latin roots of key campaign terms, like strategy and tactics. “A lot of campaign lexicon is very militaristic — even the term campaign,” Mook explained.

Three years later, Mook took his obsession with the ground game and delivered big wins for Clinton in Nevada, Ohio and Indiana as state director, far from the drama at headquarters. “He stood out in a campaign that wasn’t always stellar,” recalled David Axelrod, who was then advising Obama’s campaign.

Mook showed an ability to rally the troops on Clinton’s ’08 race, even as collegiality was at an all-time low back at headquarters. Arora recalled a time when Mook walked into a dive bar to meet up with his staff in Nevada ahead of the caucus there. “Robby made an appearance, and you’d think the hometown Super Bowl-winning quarterback walked through the door,” he said. “They erupted into applause. It must have been embarrassing.”

Mook returned to the Clintons’ orbit in 2013, when he left his job at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) to grind out a victory for Bill Clinton’s close friend Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia governor’s race. It was in this job that he first displayed another talent that would prove crucial in Hillary Clinton’s 2016 run: a deft ability to handle President Clinton. Perhaps the greatest political talent of his generation, Clinton nonetheless became a liability in 2008 when his oversize personality made a little too much news on the campaign trail. Clinton began to like and trust Mook when he ran McAuliffe’s campaign, occasionally calling him with tactical advice.

In the spring of 2015, Mook accepted Hillary Clinton’s offer to be her campaign manager and got to work putting together a detailed playbook for the primaries and general election campaign. This time, both candidate and campaign manager were determined to stick to a plan.

*****

Mook runs the Clinton campaign like the overgrown organizer he is. He starts some staff meetings with “organizing claps,” where staffers clap louder and louder in unison before Mook talks. He’s known for sprinkling his pep talks with long, drawn-out calls of “Teeeeeaaaam.” He includes the state staffers on a monthly call, and frequently reminds the young team at HQ that they work for the states, not the other way around. He visits swing states frequently, sometimes personally knocking on doors.

But underlying the cheerful and even hokey organizer vibe is a discipline and focus that steered the campaign through some of its darkest moments during the primary, especially after the New Hampshire defeat. The candidate and her campaign manager have avoided the pitfalls of the ’08 run, when the extended family of Clinton advisers and donors would pull the candidate in different directions.

“If you’ve got advice, call Robby or call John, and they’ll hear you out,” Clinton tells outside advisers, Podesta says. “There was a lack of tolerance for people who wanted to reinvent the campaign.”

John Podesta, campaign chairman, left, and Robby Mook, campaign manager for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, meet at campaign headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y. (Photo: Brooks Kraft/Getty Images)
John Podesta, campaign chairman, left, and Robby Mook, campaign manager for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, meet at campaign headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y. (Photo: Brooks Kraft/Getty Images)

Podesta and Mook have worked as a team to include Clintonworld advisers in the campaign, making sure “there weren’t a lot of armchair generals out there in the field calling shots,” according to Podesta.

When the former president calls Mook with advice or suggestions, “he doesn’t try to take the decision-making away from him,” according to Podesta. “At the end of the day, it’s Robby’s decision, and he’s not trying to undercut his authority.” (Mook can also do a killer impression of the former president.) For her part, Hillary Clinton “trusts” Mook and has a “profound…investment in his judgment,” Podesta says. Clinton took Mook’s advice to declare victory in the Iowa caucus before it was certain they would squeak out a win there, he recounted in an interview with Politico during the DNC.

This has led to a much more focused candidate — and campaign.

The young campaign manager has also mastered the art of donor maintenance, listening to their complaints and soothing their fears on conference calls during the most heart-stopping moments of the primary — like Clinton’s loss in New Hampshire, or Sanders’ upset in Michigan. He stays upbeat and calmly explains the delegate math and overall strategy to them.

Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic fundraiser in New York, said Mook provided a kind of “group therapy” for donors who were eagerly throwing out suggestions for what the secretary should do to win the race. “He was able to make it clear that this is the path we’re taking. And focus people on getting in line,” Zimmerman said, adding that Mook also dished out “tough love” when necessary. Lynn Schenk, another fundraiser and former congresswoman from California, said Mook would invite donors who raised objections to the campaign’s plan on conference calls to email him directly with their advice or complaints.

But when Mook faced pressure from outside the campaign to go negative against Sanders, he resisted.

“They’d seen what happened in 2008, and they were afraid this was going to happen again,” said Dean of panicked donors and Clinton surrogates.

Mook stayed focused on the original plan — reminding the staff that the map looked more favorable to them coming up and their role was to help win Clinton as many delegates as possible. He was focused on the key primary states and the ground game over national polling and what the media was saying about Clinton.

“Ask yourself, what can I do in the next state?” Mook said to discouraged staffers in an all-hands meeting the day after New Hampshire. He thanked those who had knocked on doors in the days before. “Our plan is strong, our plan is set and we will follow our plan.”

“I think it was a moment where a wobblier crew or a wobblier person might have hit the panic button,” Podesta said. “He didn’t.”

*****

Mook certainly understands Washington and is steeped in politics, but he’s never worked for a high-dollar political consulting firm, preferring instead to immerse himself in the granular and exhausting work of running campaigns. This distinguishes him from the pollster and political consultant class who largely ran Clinton’s last effort, and motivates his staffers, many of whom see him as a true believer who is not in it for the game or his own career.

Robby Mook, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager. (Photo: Brooks Kraft/Getty Images)
Robby Mook, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager. (Photo: Brooks Kraft/Getty Images)

His former and current “troops” say Mook motivates them by always reminding them of the stakes of the races they’re working on — and by working them so hard there’s little time to fret over national polling or news cycles. After the Republican National Convention, he asked the Clinton team to think hard about what they saw and heard — the dark vision of the country that was laid out by the speakers and by Trump. “That’s why we’re doing this,” he said.

Mook can be a relentless taskmaster. At the colorful and crowded Brooklyn HQ, staffers are wary when he asks for “flip chart paper,” a sign he is about to write down something for them to do. “Action item that!” he’ll call out in an upbeat voice, scribbling down a task and handing the unlucky staffer the paper.

“When you see that flip chart paper, you know you have some s–t to do,” jokes Marlon Marshall, the director of states and engagement, who has known Mook for 10 years. (Mook officiated at his wedding.) “The flip chart is for real.”

Mook also has a nickname for almost everyone. He calls Marlon Marshall “Marls,” spokesman Josh Schwerin “Schwerbear” and Marshall’s deputy Brynne Craig “chicken Brynner.” All three of them have worked for Mook before on previous campaigns, as have several other staffers, including senior spokesman Jesse Ferguson.

One of Mook’s most impressive accomplishments on the campaign, when compared to Clinton’s ’08 run, is how leak-free it’s been. It helps that many staffers are loyal members of the “Mook mafia” from previous campaigns, but Mook’s decision to listen to everyone — including outside Clintonworld advisers — instead of pushing unwanted advice away, has also contributed. People are encouraged to air their grievances out loud instead of silently stewing and then talking to a reporter. On a list of core campaign values drawn up by Mook and distributed to the entire campaign staff is this phrase: “We will not throw anyone under the bus.”

Staffers are constantly urged to work as a team and support each other, and Mook often reminds them, “It’s not about you.” Mook personifies this principle as an understated, mostly behind the scenes campaign manager, especially compared to the high-profile and controversial managers Trump has sought out. Trump’s campaign managers Corey Lewandowski, Paul Manafort and now Stephen Bannon have all generated significantly more headlines while serving as Trump’s campaign managers than Mook has — a disparity the Clinton campaign is proud of. (Bannon alone generated twice as many headlines in the month of August than Mook has all year.) Mook declined to comment for this profile through a spokesman, citing a policy that senior staffers do not participate in media profiles.

Clinton’s social media strategist recently Tweeted out a photo of Kellyanne Conway’s Twitter stream attacking Clinton, juxtaposed with a photo of Mook smiling while calling voters. (Mook doesn’t Tweet.) One of the few personal storylines about the young campaign manager that the media has highlighted is that he’s the first openly gay person to run a presidential campaign.

Mook’s performance has raised questions about what he’ll do after the campaign, especially if Clinton wins. But there seems to be genuinely little jockeying for future administration roles at the top of the campaign, a distraction that led to infighting and factionalism in 2008. Marshall said he doesn’t think Mook will be a campaign manager forever, but isn’t sure what his next move will be. “I don’t think he wants to be the secretary of energy,” joked Podesta. “What his calling is is to run big, complicated political organizations for success.”

Hillary Clinton's director of communications, Jennifer Palmieri, second from left, aide Huma Abedin, center, and campaign manager Robby Mook, right, stand by as Clinton speaks at a rally in 2016. (Photo: Brian Snyder/Reuters)
Hillary Clinton’s director of communications, Jennifer Palmieri, second from left, aide Huma Abedin, center, and campaign manager Robby Mook, right, stand by as Clinton speaks at a rally in 2016. (Photo: Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Meanwhile, Podesta has already been chief of staff in the White House, under Bill Clinton, and then later returned as a counselor to Obama. “It probably helps a little bit that you don’t have people who are beginning to daydream about something else,” he said.

*****

The clearest sign of Mook’s discipline and stick-to-the-playbook approach is that Hillary Clinton’s eventual opponents — perhaps the most unconventional politicians in generations — did not throw the campaign off course. Though few could have predicted she would face a 74-year-old self-described Socialist with huge grassroots support, or that Donald Trump would emerge as the GOP nominee, the Clinton campaign is largely still following Mook’s original plan.

“The plan was really an allocation of resources,” Podesta said. “Not just money but political alliances, surrogate work, her time — all the things you can do to affect a positive outcome, [were] mapped against a long primary campaign and a general election campaign.”

Unlike in ’08, Clinton’s campaign was laser-focused on amassing delegates, not winning in the popular vote, during the primaries.

Mook set benchmarks on fundraising and prioritized spending money on organizing and politics on the ground. Axelrod credits Mook’s deep and early investments in Iowa from staving off a defeat there, which could have changed the course of the primary.

Mook is also described as “cheap” by most who work with him, fanatically dedicated to not overspending, so he can stick to his playbook. This discipline on expenses is just one of many ways this campaign is strikingly different from Clinton’s ’08 run, when the candidate ran out of money soon after Iowa.

“We joke around here that he’s still looking at the merchandise to see what’s selling and what’s not,” Podesta said. “If you can get a few extra bucks by changing the T-shirt, then he’s probably paying attention to that.”

*****

Mook’s focus on sticking to a plan and staying relentlessly on message has served the candidate well, but it has also occasionally meant that the campaign has appeared robotic and over-controlled, especially in its relationship with the press. Clinton has gone months without giving press conferences, and tends to stay tightly on script at rallies.

Robby Mook speaks at a press conference in Philadelphia, Pa. (Photo: Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images)
Robby Mook at a press conference in Philadelphia. (Photo: Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images)

Lately, it has often fallen to Mook to defend Clinton’s controversies on TV, including her use of a private email server, pay-for-play allegations raised by the Clinton Foundation, and the fact that she went 275 days without hosting a press conference. (She broke the streak Monday, taking questions for nearly half an hour from her press corps.) Mook keeps a smile on his face while facing the tough questions, frequently changing the subject to Trump and occasionally coming in for reprimands from interviewers for stonewalling.

Though I never got the chance to talk to Mook, I was allowed to take a quick look at his office, which occupies a small corner space on the tenth floor of campaign headquarters, next to the communications team. Mook was sitting at a table chatting with the campaign’s analytics director, Elan Kriegel, and was wearing New Balance tennis shoes, slacks, and a button-down shirt. Behind them was Mook’s standing desk and a cheerful plant. The wall was covered in flip boards full of Mook’s “action items.” I waved silently through the glass at Mook, and he waved back. He was his usual cheerful self, but he wasn’t going to change his game plan by coming out to talk to a reporter.