In politics, a handler manages a candidate during an election.
A handler can fill a variety of roles. At the lowest end of the spectrum, a handler can take care of the candidate’s basic needs, fetching cups of coffee or take-out meals. Further up the totem pole, a handler can manage a candidate’s interactions with the media or give advice on the direction the campaign ought to take. Often, “handler” is used interchanged with “PR expert.”
A piece in New York Magazine’s “Workplace Confidential” described some of the work involved in “handling” a candidate:
A lot of the day-to-day work is helping the candidate improve. Is he or she getting sharper on the stump? It’s about practice and a willingness by the candidate to literally watch themselves and watch other people. Oppo[sition] research is one of the fun parts of the game. It’s easier these days to get the stuff out there, for sure. There are so many outlets, and somebody’s going to run with it. You just need to make sure the reporter you give it to isn’t going to waste it on a tweet.
Of course, the term “handler” is often seen as pejorative, probably because it’s closely associated with animals. An animal handler is responsible for every aspect of an animal’s welfare, from feeding and exercise to proper training and socialization. An animal handler might also show a dog or a horse in a competition. Unsurprisingly, most people don’t want to be compared to zoo animals, and so avoid describing anyone on their staff as a “handler.”
The term “handler” is also associated with boxing. The person (usually a man) who trains a prizefighter and coaches them while they’re in the ring is known as a handler. But politicians also don’t want to be compared to prizefighters, most of the time. This is probably why, as William Safire has pointed out, most politicians refer to their handlers as “consultants,” or “advisers,” or “aides.”
Generally, when someone uses the term “handler,” it’s about a member of the opposing party. Politicians usually talk about their opponents as having handlers. Journalists write, often critically, about a particular politician’s handlers. It’s an attention-grabbing word with a subtly negative flavor; it has the added virtue of being short enough to fit in a headline. So, journalists can write headlines like “Trump is ‘a full-blown lunatic’, says ex-handler Scaramucci.” Or, authors can give their books titles like “Obama Unmasked: Did Slick Hollywood Handlers Create the Perfect Candidate?”
Sometimes, politicians would rather just not have any handlers at all. In 1988, Dan Quayle was running for vice president and was facing criticism for his overly scripted and “robotic” public appearances. Quayle, frustrated, announced that he was breaking free from his political handlers, as the New York Times reported:
“‘I just said, Lookit,” he recalled today when asked to explain the change to the reporters traveling with him. ”I said I’ve done it their way this far and now it’s my turn. I’m my own handler. Any questions? Ask me.”
An advance man is also a handler.