Interviewee: Mark Mellman
Current: President and CEO, The Mellman Group
In 2004: Chief Pollster and Adviser, 2004 John Kerry campaign for President
Interviewer: Dr. Michael Nelson
Fulmer Professor of Political Science, Rhodes College
Fellow, SMU Center for Presidential History
October 15, 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: How did you connect with the Kerry campaign?
MELLMAN: Well, I had long known some of the key people running the campaign, and known Senator Kerry, obviously, for a while, and had tremendous respect for him. And some of the people that were leading that effort contacted me and asked me if I might be interested. And I had abjured presidential campaigns for some time, but eventually, it was decided it was something I wanted to do.
Q: Was this before or after he changed campaign managers?
Q: Before, so who did you know there and — and —
MELLMAN: Jim Jordan and Jim Margolis were both, I mean, I knew a lot of people therebut those were the people that were — initially spoke to me.
Q: And what was the role that you were hired to perform?
MELLMAN: Polling strategy, the usual thing that pollsters do.
Q: Yeah, and then, how did it work [00:01:00] when Mary Beth Cahill came in and Bob Shrum did more of the advertising and all that? Was it pretty smooth, as far as your role?
MELLMAN: Yeah, yeah, didn’t really portend any change for me.
Q: So, you start what month?
MELLMAN: I believe it was the summer, but I can’t remember, honestly.
Q: Summer of 2003?
MELLMAN: I believe so.
Q: And what does a pollster do during the first few months?
MELLMAN: Gabs. You know, in the early time going, there’s a lot of discussion. There’s not necessarily a lot of polling. But you know, pollsters pick up a lot of wisdom and — a little wisdom and a lot of experience, let’s put it that way — and, you know, know the date and know how the country feels, know what’s going on, and also have a lot of campaign experience. So, those become important assets in trying to set up [00:02:00] and move the campaign along. And obviously, that campaign had already started and it was underway before I joined it.
Q: Yeah, summer of ’03, Dean is already emerging as a stronger candidate than maybe he’d appeared six months earlier?
MELLMAN: I’m just trying to remember the time. Was it summer of ’03, or summer of — could it have been ’02?
Q: He raised the most money in the second quarter. His sleeve was (overlapping dialogue; inaudible).
MELLMAN: I mean, I was there then, but I think maybe I joined before that. I did, it would have been before that. It would have been before that because I remember that we did have a meeting in the summer, when he was raising a lot of money, and I’d been on for at least a little while already. I could look it up. I just don’t recall offhand.
Q: That’s all right. So, you got two elections to win, right? You’ve got to win a Democratic nomination and then the fall, I guess strategically, is it one baseline question, maybe, and that is, do you think in terms of [00:03:00] one consistent strategy that’ll take you all the way through the convention and into November of ’04? Or do you think of winning the nomination as a challenge in and of itself, and then you start thinking about after we get the nomination, what are we going —
Q: Strategically, is it one election or two?
MELLMAN: It’s many elections because on the one hand, you’d like to have one strategic approach that is going to take you from beginning to end. But as Napoleon said, “No plan survives contact with the enemy,” and so, in real life, you end up having to have a strategy for each state along the way of that primary process. You have to decide what your message is going to be, how you’re going to allocate your resources, is your message different, the same? It’s never opposite; people don’t say one thing in one place and, you know, the opposite someplace else, but are there different emphases, and so on? You know, our first challenge, though, was Iowa and New Hampshire. [00:04:00] New Hampshire’s obviously next door to both Massachusetts and Vermont, but you know, Dean had really captured the attention of Massachusetts and — I’m sorry, of New Hampshire in a very dramatic way. And so… What I suggested then to the campaign was really, there are only two ways we were going to win New Hampshire. One was that John Kerry could jump into the raging Merrimack River and save a drowning child, or we could win Iowa. And we had more control over the second than the first, so, winning Iowa became the real critical variable in the process. And a lot of people were not happy with that. There were people in New Hampshire, obviously, who thought he should just keep coming more in New Hampshire, but when you say we’re going to win Iowa, that that’s our strategy, that has real consequences. And it means you spend less in Iowa, I mean, in New Hampshire, you spend less time there, you spend more time in Iowa, spend more resources there. [00:05:00] And so, we devoted most of our time to Iowa, but we also saw in our polling that we were doing much better among real caucus attendees than the public polls suggested. So we knew we had a much better shot in Iowa than people assumed. And obviously, we won Iowa and then it was clear, frankly, to me — it wasn’t clear to everyone else — I mean, it was clear to me that once we won Iowa, John Kerry was going to win the nomination.
His winning Iowa was going to mean that New Hampshire would fall in line, which it did. And then, you know, might we — might he lose some primaries along the way or some caucuses? Of course, but the momentum at that point was going to be so great that it would be essentially impossible to stop, and that’s really what happened. You know, we came close in a couple of places, and we lost one or two primaries along the way. But, the momentum was just so strong at that point that it was insurmountable, and that really was the strategy, to start that ball rolling [00:06:00] with Iowa and New Hampshire, and once the ball’s rolling that big, it’s very hard to turn it around. I believe I’m correct in saying still, that this certainly was true at that time, that there were no one who had won both Iowa and New Hampshire and lost the in the history of the process.