Interviewee: Chris LaCivita
Current: President, Advancing Strategies, LLC
In 2004: Principal Media Advisor, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth; Consultant, National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC)
Interviewer: Michael Nelson
Fulmer Professor of Political Science, Rhodes College
Fellow, SMU Center for Presidential History
August 11, 2014
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: Chris LaCivita, you had almost a quarter century in politics at the state level in Virginia, and in various national functions before 2004. And I wonder, in 2004, what did you bring from those long and varied years of experience that was useful to you in 2004?
LACIVITA: Right. Well actually, I have nearly a quarter century now. I went in — I was — I guess I was probably in year 13 professionally in politics in 2004. You know, I served in the United States Marine Corps, and fought in the first Gulf War and came home from that experience, and went straight into the profession of politics. And so, in mid-1991, [00:01:00] and had been involved in a lot of different campaigns, managed a US Senate race. One of the top US Senate races in the country in 2000. Chuck Robb versus George Allen. And of course, Allen had won, was the national political director at the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the 2002 election cycle. Bill Frist was the chairman of the committee. And that was actually the last year that quote unquote “soft money” was allowed in party system on a federal level. That was the year before they actually had passed McCain-Feingold in 2002, I believe. So, that was a year where we had a —
Q: But it didn’t take effect in that —
LACIVITA: And it did not effect in that election cycle. So I had a $90 million political budget that we used to write and produce TV ads all over the country. And granted, and, you know, of course that was the president, President [00:02:00] Bush’s first midterm election that he faced, and generally the party in power, you know, suffers. But that was a historic year, because we actually took back the majority in the US Senate. It was the first time that had happened since I believe direct elections of US Senators started at the beginning of the twentieth century. So, that was a challenging year from the standpoint of a challenging election cycle, because, you know, as it was, I know for the president, from a governing standpoint, because it was 9/11, it was all post-9/11. So everything was changed, everything was different. While there was this short respite in terms of how campaigns would be run, and maybe they would be a little bit more civil, it didn’t last long. You know, once we got into the full swing of the 2002 election cycle, [00:03:00] things really took off. But, you know, the political experience really, I mean, the more time you spend doing this, the more you learn. I mean, it’s a business that is based really on experience. I mean, there’s not a whole lot that you can do in politics that can prepare you for some of the things — there’s not a whole lot you can do in life, really, that’ll prepare you on a daily basis for some of the things that you encounter in the context of a political campaign, unless you’ve had previous experience, you know, politically. So, there’s — you know, I had — we’d been through a lot of tough campaigns and tough candidates, and so I think the body of work, up until 2004, had prepared me for a mission that, you know, was materializing as quickly as it did.
Q: Had you developed over the years [00:04:00] any sort of theories of what moves numbers in an election, that maybe attacking your opponent moves numbers more than positive ads for your candidate?
LACIVITA: Right. Well, you know, in terms of everybody has their own maxims, if you will, or has their own theory in terms of what drives a political campaign. From my standpoint, if you’re a challenger, for instance, and you’re running to defeat an incumbent, you have to do two things. You have to provide voters a reason to vote for you, and fire the other guy. If you’re a challenger and you don’t do that, you’re not going to win. Just, you’re just not. If it becomes a popularity contest between a challenger and an incumbent, the incumbent’s going to win. People want differences. Campaigns are about differences. Campaigns are about contrasts. And so, you know, if you provide those contrasts in clear, [00:05:00] concise, easily understood manner that’s based in fact, then you have a good opportunity to defeat an incumbent. Granted, it’s also, it’s nice to have a head — you know, a tailwind, you know, if the political environment favors you. 2002 was an election cycle where I think the political environment was just really up in the air, it didn’t really — I don’t think it was unusually Republican. It wasn’t a tailwind like the Democrats had in 2006, it wasn’t a tailwind like Republicans had in 2010. So it was a little — those races were won tactically. I also believe that in terms of campaigns, that my personal philosophy is I don’t win campaigns. I just keep candidates from losing them. Quite frankly, the candidates are the ones who win, they’re the ones who get themselves elected. You know, my job is to keep them from making mistakes, which they do because [00:06:00] they’re under an enormous amount of stress, and they’re worried about day to day things, and I have to keep a bigger picture focus. So it’s about providing strategic guidance. And so that’s, you know, another aspect of, you know, at least the way I view things. I think it’s very important also that you have to have — if you’re running for public office, if you’re a candidate, you have to have — people have to know who you are, they have to like you before they’ll vote for you. And I mean, and there are plenty of cases where people have gone to — I’ve been involved in campaigns in the past where the strategy was, make the other guy as unfavorable as my guy, and maybe I’ll have a shot at winning. And I’ve succeeded in campaigns like that, those are always tougher. But generally, you want people to have a higher positive vision of your candidate than they would a negative one. And [00:07:00] they have to know what you stand for, and they have to have a pretty good idea of those points before you, yourself, as the candidate, have any credibility in attacking your opponent. If you attack your opponent, and you have minimal name ID, and — or you have wide name ID, but it’s very thin, you don’t have the credibility to carry a negative. You will increase the negatives of your opponent, but your negatives that you will — you will take on water very, very rapidly, and that it’ll come to a breaking point, and it’ll come to a tipping point, and so you have to spend as much time, resources, and effort talking about yourself as you do your opponent. If you don’t, you know, those are the races that are generally pretty close on Election Day.
Q: Now you’re talking about a challenger running against an incumbent.
LACIVITA: A challenger, right, right.
Q: In ’04, the challenger running against the incumbent was Kerry against Bush.
Q: So how does that [00:08:00] affect the analysis?
LACIVITA: Well, it changes things quite a bit. I’m involved in races in this election cycle where I’m finding that the issue environment, for once, actually favors the Republican candidates. Republicans in the past would never want to talk about — and this was the same as it was in 2010, Republicans would never want to talk about healthcare. I mean, you know, that’d be the last thing — or for that matter, education. Those were issues that just were deemed to be more favorable to Democrats. While — so Republicans are out trying to initiate discussions on those issues, and Democrats want to attack on character. So what happens is when the issue environment generally does not favor your candidate, whether he be an incumbent or not, you try to take the election somewhere else, on something else. In 2004, specifically as it related to the presidential campaign, it was — you know, it was interesting, because, [00:09:00] you know, we weren’t involved with the campaign. We did not talk to the people at the Bush campaign. I had a lot of friends there in, you know, key positions, but neither them nor I looked good in orange jumpsuits, so… (laughter)
Q: And just for the record, why?
LACIVITA: Well, it would be — it’s illegal. I mean, you cannot have a conversation — and this, remember now, 2004 is the first year, it’s the first election cycle post-McCainFeingold. And, you know, I think one of the unintended consequences of McCainFeingold — there were plenty of us who saw this coming, but you’re never going to be able to eliminate the influence of individuals or groups of individuals from being engaged in the political process. The Founders didn’t [00:10:00] set it up that way. So the 527s started popping up all over the place back in 2004. And 527 is a code in — is a section of the IRS code which allows the individuals to form a political committee to engage in political debate. And there are certain rules and regulations that you have to follow. But that was the first year of McCainFeingold, so if you’re staffed up with good enough lawyers, they’ll find the holes for you. And then — and, you know, that’s essentially what we did. And — but getting back to the — you know, the issues set, so we weren’t involved in any discussions with the Bush campaign. Matter of fact, I knew it very well that as we proceeded with the Swift Boat operation, they didn’t particularly care for it. [00:11:00] There were some at the very highest levels of the Bush campaign that weren’t too thrilled with what we were engaging in. But for us, who were doing the Swift– it wasn’t about the president. It wasn’t about President Bush. It was all about John Kerry. And we frankly didn’t give two hoots what the campaign thought about what we were doing. I mean, we clearly did not want to do anything that would damage the president. I mean, we were all supporters, and clearly wanted to see him win. The vast majority of us — there were some members of the Swift Boats who were Democrats, not many — but the vast majority of us, you know, would have been very distraught had the president lost. Especially if it had been anything that we had done. But at the same time, you know, we had to tell a story, a story that needed to be told. And the venue that allowed us to do that was the — setting up a 527. So, [00:12:00] we set up this 527 — and yeah, go ahead.