Two weeks ago, while driving, a sharp fact jabbed me through the soft drone of NPR. The story concerned a John McCain campaign memo that was leaked to the press — something about Barack Obama's likelihood of enjoying a serious post-convention bounce, the kind of "leak" one assumes comes from a campaign trying to manage public expectation.
The memo's author? Sarah Simmons, the campaign's director of strategy.
No way, I thought.
This couldn't be the Sarah Simmons I knew back in 1992. Not the brainy, earnest Shawnee Mission Northwest girl I used to laugh with for hours at the Kmart at 87th Street and Maurer in Lenexa. Not the bright, goofy band geek who used to sit in a shopping cart while I pushed her around women's wear, distributing that week's sale signs. Not the tall, pinkish, bookish blond-haired Republican diehard who adored Nancy Kassebaum, could talk politics like a guest on The NewsHour, and once gave me a photo of herself posing with a cardboard cutout of Nancy Reagan.
Of course it was her. The Sarah Simmons I knew had always talked of a political career, and she'd left Kansas in 1992 for American University in Washington, D.C. She majored in political science, went on to get her master's degree and managed in just 16 years to haul herself up from tending the 99-cent underwear bin to serving as director of strategy for the Republican Party's presidential candidate.
Google confirmed all of this. She worked with McCain last year, got laid off when he went broke early this year, then came back when he started winning again. She's quoted in The Boston Globe and lambasted by commentators on the political gossip site Wonkette. She has elected state reps; she organized Wisconsin for the GOP in 2000; and she re-elected Saxby Chambliss, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Louisiana Sen. David Vitters, who once famously earmarked $100,000 so the Louisiana Family Forum could challenge the teaching of evolution. In 2007, Campaigns & Elections named her a "rising star." And as an associate director in the White House's Office of Strategic Initiatives, she worked for Karl Rove.
I still think she's awesome.
"Every campaign has its own relentless level of hecticness and stress," she tells me by phone from her D.C. office, the first contact we've had in 15 years. "This is nothing like the corporate environment. There's always lots of swearing, a good bottle of booze, and by the end everybody comes in every day looking like they just rolled out of bed. But complaining about it would be like a reporter complaining about deadlines. This is the job, and it's the best job in the world."
She sounds just like she did years ago. A voice reedy and amused, a polite firmness with her opinions but real respect for everyone else's. And mostly the kind of in-the-marrow, morning-in-America optimism I always suspect the people she works for are trying to fake.
Before she ran campaigns, she specialized in polling, consulting and "opposition research."
"That sounds a lot sexier than it was," she says. "Opposition research taught me the fundamentals of how you build a candidate's record. You add up all the proposals the candidate supported to reach the $300 million in new spending that might run in an ad."
Eventually, she landed at Public Opinion Strategies, a research and opinion firm that, among other things, conducts polls for most Republican governors and U.S. House members. She polled for six years and loved it, eventually becoming senior project director. "It's the key to the puzzle," she says. "I'd survey city council races or state legislative races and sometimes get in some presidential-level questions. Polling, you see a broad spectrum of how the dynamics of America come together. I learned there how to ask voters the right questions."