A powerful strategy

A photo finish: Adam Erickson shakes hands with Brendan Boyle after watching the U.S. Congress primary election results on May 20, 2014. PHOTO: Adam Erickson

You’d think the Clinton organization would’ve had an inkling during the 2016 presidential campaign that favorable polling doesn’t always result in election day victory.

For guidance on the subject, all they had to do was look two years prior when one of their own, Marjorie Margolies — Chelsea Clinton’s mother-in-law and a key congressional ally for Bill during his tenure in the Oval Office — lost a primary bid to reclaim the 13th district seat in the U.S. House that she held from 1993 to ’95.

In August 2013, nine months ahead of her four-way primary contest, Margolies led the field with 43 percent support among likely Democrat voters, according to a poll commissioned by Margolies. Somerton’s Brendan Boyle, then a state House member, was a distant second with 15 percent.

But on election night, May 20, 2014, Boyle raked in 41 percent of the vote, defeating the runner-up Margolies by 14 points and capitalizing on some campaign themes that would resurface in the presidential campaign two years later — namely working-class angst and a rejection of the status quo.

Somerton-based political consultant Adam Erickson was Boyle’s 29-year-old, largely untested campaign manager for that primary. Since then, the Bucks County native has parlayed that early victory into his own successful consulting firm that counts candidates on both coasts among its clients as well as congressional and state office hopefuls in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Formerly a one-man operation, Erickson’s Princeton Strategies has grown to a staff of seven and partnered with a Baltimore-based strategic consulting firm to expand its geographic reach while working with more nonprofit and for-profit organizations and foundations in the D.C. area. Meanwhile, Los Angeles City Council candidate Joe Bray-Ali has hired Erickson’s firm ahead of the March 7 municipal election in the nation’s second-largest city.

“In political consulting, you can rise quite quickly if you’re smart and hard-working and talented,” Boyle said. “And Adam is all of those things. I would say Adam’s firm qualifies as a national firm. They’ve done a lot in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and are now working in other states. Adam’s already been a campaign manager for a congressional race and is doing statewide judicial races. So I continue to expect big things from him in the future.”

Erickson may have been a little-known figure in local political circles before Boyle’s 2014 congressional run, but he already possessed a strong familiarity with the area. Though born in Princeton, Erickson lived most of his formative years with his family in Bensalem, where he attended public grade schools as his father studied to become a Presbyterian minister.

After his father’s ordination, the family relocated to Kansas. Erickson graduated high school there and studied business at Wichita State while working as a restaurant manager. His attentions turned to politics during that period of his life.

“I played ice hockey in high school, dislocated my hip and (developed) rheumatoid arthritis. Since 2003, I’ve had that pre-existing condition and have had difficulty getting health care insurance,” he said.

Erickson looked to Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act as his solution, but it took the administration years to implement it. In 2011, he got involved on a committee that helped set up a clinic for the uninsured and underinsured in Pratt, Kansas, in partnership with local physicians and educational institutions.

By 2012, Erickson wanted to help Obama’s reelection effort to advocate for the ACA.

“I didn’t know what a legislative office was or what a campaign office did, but I found an internship on Craig’s List with Brendan, who was a state rep and chairman of the House Democrat Campaign Committee,” Erickson said.

The move back to Pennsylvania wasn’t so bad because he still had family and friends in the area. The internship did not pay, but Erickson soon took a paid position with Boyle’s brother Kevin on his reelection campaign in the 172nd PA House district. Erickson learned about door-to-door campaigning, phone banks, mailings, fundraising and strategy.

“I got to sit in on all of the strategic meetings. It was my first paying election day,” he said.

He also realized that some of the skills he learned as a restaurant manager, such as being able to think on your feet and crisis management, translated well to the campaign arena.

His career as a campaign manager didn’t start off in similar fashion, however. In fall 2012, school teacher Marie Corfield hired him to direct her run for New Jersey Assembly in Somerset County. Corfield had gained some name recognition and national TV time for confronting Gov. Chris Christie during a town hall meeting. She trailed her opponent by nine points a month before election day and lost by less than one point.

As a minority-party candidate in a traditionally Republican district, Corfield received limited financial help from the state party, which nonetheless maintained a majority in the Assembly.

In mid-2013, Erickson landed a job managing U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone’s run for U.S. Senate, where he faced a four-person field that included the frontrunning Newark Mayor Cory Booker. It was a special election to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg.

Booker rode his already soaring name recognition and popularity to a landslide victory in the August primary and 10-point win in the October general.

“We beat everybody else except for Superman,” Erickson said. “The first campaign I was involved in was a win and the next two were losses. In the first, I think, we outperformed expectations. And in the second, we were going against a big name in Booker. But I was able to keep in contact with Pallone and was still confident in my abilities.”

Yet, with back-to-back defeats on his resume, Erickson surely had some convincing to do to win over his next client. Brendan Boyle, facing the biggest race of his own career, put his trust in the former intern.

“I was a heavy, 30-point underdog against an establishment candidate, so a lot of the big name-type people were going to some of the other campaigns,” Boyle said. “I really wanted someone who would fit into our campaign who was young, hard-working, hungry and someone who would just be a decent person to work with, and who was talented.

“He was the campaign manager. Between myself, my brother, our consultant Ken Snyder and my chief of staff, Dan Lodise, there were a number of us, a group of five or six that were in the bunker, trying to reach the right decisions when we had to make those decisions.”

Conventional wisdom said that the campaign was under-funded and out-gunned. Boyle ended up raising less money than any of his opponents — who also included state Sen. Daylin Leach and physician Val Arkoosh — for what ended up being the most expensive congressional primary in the country that cycle, according to Boyle. The candidates spent upwards of $7 million as a group.

Judging by the results, Boyle’s message resonated the most with voters.

“Our message in ’14 was about giving opportunities to working families and we won by a lot more than we were supposed to,” Erickson said. “People, especially in this region, are concerned about what happens to the middle class and what the future holds.”

Boyle believes that Donald Trump tapped into the same sentiment and voters during his presidential campaign, while Clinton and her advisers in the Democrat establishment missed the boat. Boyle cites Oreos as a prime example.

In a July 2015 speech from the House floor, he called for a boycott of Oreos and other Nabisco/Mondelez products in response to the company’s closure of its Northeast Philadelphia bakery. More than 300 local workers lost their jobs as the company expanded production in Mexico. Boyle’s plea didn’t resonate with his Democrat colleagues.

But after Nabisco/Mondelez laid off another 500 workers in Chicago months later, Trump announced that he’d never again eat Oreos. And “no more Oreos” chants permeated his campaign rallies.

“The presidential candidate who ended up talking about it and making a big deal about it was Donald Trump,” Boyle said.

Erickson didn’t stick around for Boyle’s 34-point win over Dee Adcock in the 2014 general election. Instead, he reunited with Pallone as he won reelection to his U.S. House seat.

Erickson created Princeton Strategies in February 2015 at Boyle’s former campaign office at 13050 Bustleton Ave. and brought in Collin Sewell as a senior associate. The two had met on Corfield’s campaign.

The firm ran successful judicial campaigns in Montgomery County and municipal council campaigns in Edison and Summit, New Jersey.

Last year, Erickson associate Zack Arnold managed Jared Solomon’s successful run for the 202nd district seat in the Pennsylvania House. Solomon ousted Mark Cohen, the longest-serving legislator in state history, in a rematch of his narrow defeat to Cohen in 2014.

“(Erickson) has great political instincts,” Solomon said. “Both of us felt very comfortable with one another bouncing around ideas. It’s always good as a candidate to have someone that can clearly tell you when they don’t think you’re making the right decision and they push back on that. And we have that type of comfort in our relationship.

“We worked together to revamp our whole operation for fundraising, mail, communication with the media, election day get out the vote and the overall field plan.”

But Princeton Strategies has tasted defeat, too. Last year, the firm ended up on the losing end of Joe Hohenstein’s challenge of 16-term Republican state Rep. John Taylor. Simultaneously, the firm lost a congressional race in South Jersey, as Dave Cole fell by 23 points to 11-term incumbent Frank LoBiondo.

So the template, no matter how successful in the past, never guarantees future performance.

“When you have a loss in the back of your mind, it pushes you to keep working, to keep going until one in the morning,” Erickson said. “Every campaign is very specific. Everyone is different. After any election, you can always point to the ‘what ifs.’ ” ••

Bigger and better: Adam Erickson was now-U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle’s largely untested campaign manager during the 2014 primary. Since then, Erickson has started his own consulting firm that counts candidates on both coasts among its clients. MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO