Interviewee: Ken Mehlman
Current: Member & Global Head of Public Affairs, KKR
In 2004: Campaign Manager, George W. Bush 2004 Re-Election Campaign
Interviewer: Dr. Michael Nelson
Fulmer Professor of Political Science, Rhodes College
Fellow, SMU Center for Presidential History
December 13, 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: OK. Your connection with George W. Bush, how did that come about?
MEHLMAN: While I was born in Maryland and went to school in Pennsylvania and in Massachusetts, for some reason I, for a long time, was a Texan, by employment. So I worked originally, out of law school, for a law firm that was based in Texas, Akin Gump, and then I worked for two members of Congress, both who were from Texas — and in that process got to know Governor Bush, got to know his record, and really respected the approach he took, which he described as compassionate conservatism, whereby he looked for using conservative means to accomplish broader societal ends, whether it was improving education, whether it was the approach you took with respect to immigration, whether it was using civil society to help fight poverty and to provide people with more mobility. These are all things I really [01:00] believed in and I was inspired by. So as I became more politically active and as I became more involved as a business first as a lawyer and then working in — from two members of Congress, I looked for opportunities to get to know folks in the Bush administration and the governor’s administration. And that’s how I got to know him.
Q: Well, I picked up in a bio that you also had a John Kerry connection, in the sense that you worked for Bill Weld —
MEHLMAN: I did.
Q: — when he ran against Kerry in ’96. Did you inform any impressions of Kerry?
MEHLMAN: It wasn’t ’96. I worked for Governor Weld in 1990, when he first ran. So I started a group called Harvard Students for Weld. There were like four of us. (laughter) Actually, there were more than you’d think. That year, if you remember, he ran against John Silber. And he actually did very well, as I recall, both among Harvard students and, generally, among people who worried about — then it was the president —of Boston University — Mr. Silber’s more combustible [02:00] personality and liked the approach that Governor Weld took — or then candidate Weld took.
Q: And what was your job, in the 2000 campaign?
MEHLMAN: In 2000, I was the National Field Director.
Q: And looking back on that campaign, coming out of that campaign, were there lessons you learned from that experience — you and the campaign, generally —
Q: — that stood you in good stead, in ?
MEHLMAN: There were definitely really big lessons that we learned. I’ve always thought that, in life — and it’s not just in politics — I think about it in business too — what you do wrong is more important than what you do right, in some ways, if you can learn from it. So, often, sustained success can be dangerous, because it can lull you into believing that, in fact, you’re so great, when, in fact, often you’re just fortunate. And similarly, mistakes or things that don’t go as well as you want can be huge opportunities for growth. So if you think about it, we lost the popular vote in 2000, by 500,000 votes. And in the final several days before the election, our numbers went down. And part of that [03:00] clearly was the DUI revelation. But part of it also, we thought, was we could do a much better job in how we turn out voters. So we came up with a concept we called the 72 hour effort, around the last 72 hours of the campaign. And we literally studied every aspect of how you target, how you identify, how you motivate, and how you turn out voters. And we used the 2002 election cycle as a giant laboratory for how we would identify more effective tactics, going forward. And it’s one of the things that ultimately led to the use of essentially data analytics, which was, at the time, called micro-targeting, which was very important to our success in 2004. And it also convinced us the important of person-to-person, of me as your neighbor talking to you about the candidate, rather than relying simply on kind of paid operations, paid calls or paid efforts. So the two, kind of, critical pillars of the 2004 campaign, which was more precise targeting [04:00] of voters, through all kinds of means but using data analytics, big data, as they say today, and, secondly, mobilizing a giant army, or person-to-person persuasion — we — much more effective and more anonymous persuasion, both were born out of the lessons we learned from 2000, that we thought we could do better in four years.
Q: I think there was also a sense, in 2000, that a couple particular groups didn’t have the kind of turnout that you were counting on, evangelicals and, given Governor Bush’s support among Latinos in Texas elections, Latinos. So were those particular groups that you thought you could…?
MEHLMAN: Yeah. I think that what you saw in 2000 with respect to evangelical voters, in part was a reaction to the DUI. I always felt that was part of — a group that was particularly potentially impacted by that. But I think both of these groups were also groups through which more precise targeting… What do you care ab ? Remember, more precise targeting means we figure out more specifically what you care about, what issue motivates you, how to talk about it motivates you, [05:00] and who you find to be persuasive to make the case to you. That was something that would affect all voters but including those two groups. For Latino voters, I definitely think… You know, we went from, I believe, 39% to 44%. By the way, it’s no accident that the only time in the last six presidential elections the Republican Party has won either a majority of the vote or the popular vote was in 2004, the election we got 27% of the nonwhite vote. If Republicans don’t change the denominator, if they don’t add to the number of people they’re potentially targeting, they’re going to keep losing — we’re going to keep losing elections.
Q: Two thousand two, you mentioned. That…
MEHLMAN: That was a good election. (laughs)
MEHLMAN: A good election.