Ken Mehlman – Campaign Manager of the Bush Re-Election Campaign

Interviewer: Dr. Michael Nelson

Read or Download a complete transcription of the Ken Mehlman interview.

by Ina Batzke

Westfälische Wilhelms-University, Münster, Germany

Kenneth Brian “Ken” Mehlman served as campaign manager for the 2004 re-election campaign of George W. Bush. Mehlman has been active in Republican politics since the 1980s, when he went door-to-door in support of Ronald Reagan.1 He was also involved in George H.W. Bush’s re-election campaign in 1992 and Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign. He began his service for George W. Bush as national field director for the 2000 presidential campaign. When Bush became President in 2001, Mehlman became director of the White House Office of Political Affairs. On May 16, 2003, the President announced Ken Mehlman as his campaign manager for the 2004 re-election campaign. Mehlman’s responsibilities included overseeing all aspects of the promotional campaigns and managing the election team, which included over 200 staff at headquarters in Washington, D.C., and another 100 across the United States. Mehlman employed Kelley McCullough as Deputy to the Campaign Manager for Campaign Operations and Mark Wallace as a second Deputy Campaign Manager. He also worked closely with Senior Advisor Karl Rove, whose office in the White House functioned as the main liaison to the campaign.2

In the beginnings of the campaign, Mehlman was primarily in charge of pulling the essential strings in the background. His own statements first gained widespread media attention when John Kerry’s campaign filed a complaint against President Bush with the Federal Election Commission in August 2004. Sen. John Kerry accused Mehlman and his team of illegal coordination with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (SBVT) group, which had published advertisements that framed Kerry as “unfit to serve” as President.3 Two days later, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Mehlman publicly denied any complicity with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth: “The fact is this campaign is unprecedented in our praise of our opponent’s service during Vietnam.”4 While Mehlman reacted in time and nipped a possible scandal in the bud, the term ‘swiftboating,’ derived from the name of the SBVT group, lived on as a pejorative used to describe an untrue or unfair political attack.5

During the later stages of the election campaign, Mehlman received special attention for his unusual campaigning methods, which, as he stated later in the New York Times, “accounted for much of Mr. Bush’s 3.5 million-vote margin of victory over Senator John Kerry.” To identify potential Bush supporters, the Republicans had moved away from traditional operations and developed a “consumer model that corporate America does every day to predict how people vote.” Instead of sending out teams to knock on doors in districts known to be heavily Republican, the campaign team “studied consumer habits in trying to predict whom people would vote for in a presidential election.” In a bottom-line characterization, Mehlman stated that “[i]f you drive a Volvo and you do yoga, you are pretty much a Democrat. If you drive a Lincoln or a BMW and you own a gun, you’re voting for George Bush.” Bush’s re-election campaign was thus not structured solely on where voters lived, but also based on their lifestyles and consumer behaviors. According to Mehlman, this differentiation was critically important to their success.6 For this innovative approach, the American Association of Political Consultants honored Mehlman as “Campaign Manager of the Year” in January 2005.7

After the successful re-election of President Bush and his inauguration in 2005, Mehlman became Chair of the Republican National Committee.

1Thomas B. Edsall, “Bush Picks Re-election Campaign Manager Mehlman to Lead RNC,” Washington Post, November 16, 2004, accessed May 17, 2014,“President George W. Bush-Campaign Organization,” accessed May 19, 2014,“Swift Veterans Letter to John Kerry,” May 4, 2004, accessed May 19, 2014, Also see the original television advertisement on the SBVT website, dated October 12, 2004,
4“Bush campaign denies ‘smear tactics’,” August 23, 2004, accessed May 18, 2014,
5Oxford English Dictionary. Available under

6Adam Nagourney, “Bush Campaign Manager Views the Electoral Divide,” The New York Times, November 19, 2004, accessed May 19, 2014,

7Adam Green, “The Pollies,”The New Yorker, March 7, 2005, accessed April 25, 2014,