Interviewee: Charlie Cook
Editor and Publisher of The Cook Political Report
Interviewer: Dr. Michael Nelson
Fulmer Professor of Political Science, Rhodes College
Fellow, SMU Center for Presidential History
October 14, 2013
This transcription has been prepared according to the strictest practices of the academic and transcription communities and offers our best good-faith effort at reproducing in text our subject’s spoken words. In all cases, however, the video of this interview represents the definitive version of the words spoken by interviewees.
Q: Charlie, when does the story of the 2004 election begin? What’s the first crucial event or development that began — that should be on page one of that story?
COOK: Well, I always think that presidential campaigns in some ways start the day after the previous election. I mean, that’s sort of what sets things up; that’s when people start thinking about, gosh, this is something I might want to do, that sort of thing. So I think it starts in an embryonic state back then, and then as you flow through the first year of a presidency, you have people in the opposition party starting to, like, really think about getting in. And then that thinking gets more serious during the midterm election year. And traditionally I think candidates start — would-be candidates start, you know, making real decisions right after the midterm elections. So, you know, November, December, first three, four months of the year. And that’s becoming even more [00:01:00] the case, because when you look at the absolutely colossal amounts of money that these people have to raise — they have to get started very, very, very early on. So they really need all that time.
Q: I get the sense from things I’ve read that in the immediate aftermath of the 2000 election, once all the dust settled —
COOK: Yeah, that would have delayed it, yeah.
Q: Yeah, delayed. But the Bush people wondered, “Where did our big lead go? And we thought we were going to have a higher turnout from, say, white evangelical voters, and our turnout operation wasn’t –” I wonder, did you — did the Republicans in particular sort of look at 2000 — they probably knew who their candidate was going to be in ’04, but think, “Here’s things we need to start looking at right now”?
COOK: I think the 2000 election results so scared them that they probably started in earnest sooner than they would have normally. [00:02:00] And I think it led to Karl Rove and the Bush folks doing a lot of really, really innovative — I mean, a lot of innovative political techniques that I’d say came to full blossom with the Obama campaign in 2012. But you know, the very earliest micro-targeting, data mining and all these things, you know, really go back to that 2004 Bush campaign. And I’ve got to think losing the popular vote, coming so close to losing the election, was an impetus for them to say, “OK, we can’t do this the way we did it last time and the way Republicans have ever done it; we’ve got to do it real differently.” So I think it cranked up real, real, real early.
Q: And it’s interesting, because the Bush election crew in ’04 was pretty much the same team as in 2000, [00:03:00] which is not always the case.
COOK: At some level, but you know, you had people like, what, Terry Nelson was the field director, as I remember, of the Bush campaign. And you had some people that were new faces in some of the operational roles, but yes, it was — you know, and the high command was, you know, pretty close to the same group of folks. And I think that speaks to the loyalty. You know, when you go through the strengths and liabilities of any public figure, I think for President George W. Bush, the loyalty that his people had for him really stood out. And that was one reason why there was minimal leaking to the press of anything they didn’t want out in 2000, 2004; it was very tightly controlled, [00:04:00] and the staff were very, very loyal to him. And I think he returned that loyalty to them. And that’s a big deal. And after President Bush, you know, you’d have to have gone to maybe Obama 2008 to find a campaign where you had that kind of tight relationship between the team and the candidate, so that there was very, very little leakage. Less so in 2012, but definitely, definitely in 2008. So you know, campaign technology expertise kind of jumps in leaps and bounds. In a lot of ways, I think the 2004 campaign was sort of the beginning of the most modern era of campaign technology, in that, you know, the Obama 2012 strategy, [00:05:00] I think, was almost lifted page-for-page from the Rove strategy for 2004.
Q: So you mentioned micro-targeting. What other things — micro-targeting: maybe we should explain what that is. And then other things…
COOK: Well, it’s using — I’ll sort of merge them together: the data-mining micro-targeting is using every possible bit of data you could find to figure out who is — you know, what makes somebody tick. Let me grossly simplify it. You know, if you’re a man and you’ve got a hunting license — if you’re a white man with a hunting license, the odds of you voting Republican are extremely high. You know, subscribe to Field and Stream magazine. I mean, you’d go way, way, way out. And if — conversely, [00:06:00] if you subscribe to — I’m making this up — the Organic Farmer, you know, odds are, you know, you’re probably going to be more likely to vote for a more liberal candidate, for a Democratic candidate. And you know, back during those days, I used to say that the white — at least in terms of white voters, and you really do have to separate white from African American and Hispanic — was the way to tell where whites were going to vote Democratic versus Republican was, you know, proximity to and concentration of Starbucks compared to Walmarts. Now, since then, both Starbucks and Walmarts have become ubiquitous, but my colleague here at the Cook Political Report, David Wasserman, and he’s also our House editor, he’s now — he had actually — he was a graduate student at, or he was an undergraduate student at University of Virginia for Larry Sabato. And apparently he heard me say that on C-SPAN and he wrote his paper where he looked at precincts in Virginia [00:07:00] and Starbucks and Walmarts, and I got this email from Larry saying, “Hey, one of my kids did a paper, and you know, you were absolutely right” — when I was just sort of making it up; it was just kind of a guess. But anyway, he’s kind of updated that to — to now it’s Whole Foods versus Cracker Barrel. And he’s matched up — in counties with Cracker Barrels, how they voted versus counties with Whole Foods. And it’s definitely there. So it’s matching up sort of geo-demographic, psycho-graphic information, and helping you figure out, you know, who’s likely to do what.
But part of the strategy, as best I could tell, for the Bush campaign — it was a feeling that independent voters and undecided voters were not likely to break towards President Bush. And so they could spend all their money chasing after a group of people [00:08:00] who were extremely familiar with President Bush and were still undecided or take that money to go after — into areas where clearly the kinds of people who live in that neighborhood, in that precinct, in that part of town, they’re clearly very, very, very likely to vote Republican, so how do you crank that up? I mean, finding a precinct where, let’s say, Republicans can count on 62% of the vote but that only 400 people usually vote in that precinct — well, what if they could get 500 people out of that precinct? 550, 600? Holding up that kind of percentage, by going after people just like all the others but who are highly variable in terms of their likelihood of voting. And so what they started trying to do is sort of organically grow their base, as opposed to what may very well have been a fruitless effort towards chasing after [00:09:00] undecideds. And I would say that’s exactly what President Obama’s campaign did in 2012, where, you know, his numbers didn’t look good with independents. And, you know, they could chase those folks or they could just try to ratchet up the turnout in the groups that they were more confident they’d be able to do well. So again, it was straight out of the 2004 playbook.
Q: Well, back to the aftermath of the 2000 election: Bush is appealing to the voters that year basically on matters of domestic policy. I mean, there’s a sense that the world is in pretty good shape — and then 9/11 occurs. How did that change the context of politics for the next several years?
COOK: Well, let me reach back just a bit first and then get to your point. [00:10:00] There was a — I thought the 2000 Bush/Gore campaign, up until Election Day, was actually one of the more civil affairs that we had seen in recent years. It was not — you know, from the — we thought things had gotten pretty nasty during the Clinton years, and heck, there was an impeachment. And Republicans — you know, a lot of Republican voters were just — you know, found Bill Clinton revolting. And so given that sort of edginess, that polarization we had had, the choice between Bush and Gore, up until Election Day, it wasn’t a particularly acerbic campaign. And it wasn’t until the Florida challenge that suddenly what had been a relatively non-acrimonious campaign became, you know, the hardest edge — one of the ones that we’ve ever had. And suddenly the whole complexion of the [00:11:00] Bush presidency, politically speaking, got changed. I mean, it would be fascinating if we could go back, turn the clock back, and say, “George W. Bush won Florida by 20,000 votes, and it’s totally uncontested.” Had that happened, I think the whole mindset in the country would have been very different. And instead you had, you know, almost half the country thought he was an illegitimate president. Thought that he shouldn’t be president. Which is kind of a foreshadowing of the whole birther business