Transcription – Mark Mellman Interview

Q:                    OK, so, election night.  You think at one point you’re going to win.  How does the evening go —

MELLMAN:      Brief point, yeah.  (laughter)

Q:                    — from there?  I mean —

MELLMAN:      Downhill.

Q:                    — until Senator Kerry, does anybody tell Senator Kerry, “It looks like we’re going to win?”

MELLMAN:      Well, I was here.  He was on the plane, and then going to Boston.  I was in headquarters, here, [01:25:00] planning to go to Boston.  Never made it.  And…  You know, basically, as I say, we had these sort of early reports, and let me go back, I said — going back to something you were asking about before, there were other polls that showed us, individual polls that showed us ahead.  Again, and if you aggregate all the polls as we did, if you look just at our own polling, it did not show us ahead.  But there were other polls that did.  So, people are always, you know, prefer to believe the good news than the bad news, and that’s a struggle that we had.  And we had people, you know, who are arguing for example that all the undecideds were going to break to us, and I did not believe that was the case.  And so, our — you — but you know, you get this sort of muddle of uncertainty, and of course, the candidate’s on the road and there’s big crowds and Bruce Springsteen is playing and people are very excited, and so, you know, it’s got a very happy sort of feel to it at that point.  Unlike, you know, I mean, [01:26:00] I think the Bob Dole campaign would have had a very different experience, where they’re behind in every poll and it’s not really close, and so on.  We had a sort of different ethos and feel to the campaign as a whole, even if there were some pessimists like myself that remained.  But you know, in terms of election night, when we first got these, you know, good news, that as I say, for a few minutes changed my mind, but then we started to get worse news.  And you know, look, then we got to the point where Ohio was it and there were a large number — we understood a large number of ballots that had not been counted for various reasons in Ohio, and large enough to make a difference, potentially.  And so, we were, because of the 2000 experience, we were very focused [01:27:00] on talking to the political directors at the various networks and so on, urging them not to call the state yet because of these uncounted ballots, and the possibility that things could shift.  One of the things that I think 2000 showed is once they sort of say, “X is the president,” Bush, in that case, it’s very hard to sort of — you know, then it’s an uphill battle to, no matter what the facts are, it’s an uphill battle to sort of change that perception.  So, we wanted not to let that perception set.  And you know, people were, I think, were because of the 2000, (inaudible) respectful of that.  But there came a point where it was clear, but I never made it to Boston in part because I was sort of on the phone all night, trying to figure out what was going on in Ohio, in the end.  That was the decisive place, just as we had predicted.

Q:                    I’ve asked you everything I know to ask.  Are there things that you remember about that campaign or about [01:28:00] politics in that period that I should have asked you about that would be helpful for people who watch this interview?

MELLMAN:      Well, I don’t know if it’ll be helpful for anybody, and we’ve touched on it — I mean, this was very importantly a national security election, and there were people who thought, well, we could change the narrative and make it an economic election, for example.  As I said, there were two problems with that.  One is it’s very hard to change what people are thinking about in a fundamental way, especially when it’s a result of real forces, it’s not just what’s on TV, it’s there’s a reality, we had September 11, we had wars going on.  And so, it was very hard to sort of shift that narrative completely, and we had — and the economic narrative was in fact not so negative as to preclude the reelection of a president.  So, there were people who sort of looked at that election, say, “Well, John Kerry should have won it.”  The truth is, [01:29:00] he should not have won it, and I actually — I write a column each week for The Hill, which is a Hill rag, newspaper on Capitol Hill, and I have to submit it on Monday and they run it on Wednesday.  And so, I submitted it on Monday and they decided to — I can’t remember exactly, but basically I was sort of saying, “Look, I think Kerry’s not going to be the winner here.  I’m not sure.  You know, you all know I didn’t, but you know, if he wins, and these are the forces he will have overcome, which are pretty amazing.”  And so, the Republicans on — somehow, the column got out early, and there’s a story going out that Kerry’s pollster on the eve of the election predicts he’s going to lose, and so on.  I don’t know how I got to this point, but except to say that while people were optimistic and people thought [01:30:00] that — there were people who thought Kerry should win, that was really never in the cards.  If he had won, it would have been a tremendous upset.  And the truth is, he came pretty close to winning, and I would argue closer to winning than by rights he should have, by rights in terms of the circumstances, than he should have.  So, in that sense, you know, I think that he did a great job.  I think the campaign did a great job.  Not a great enough job — you want to win, that’s the goal — but I think the circumstances were such that it was extraordinarily difficult to win, and as I say, that’s a view I held all through the campaign.

Q:                    Two more questions that your answer sort of inspired.  One is, is the old conventional wisdom that undecided voters break against the incumbent, is that bogus, as a generalization?

MELLMAN:      Yes.  And this was an argument that (inaudible) campaign, there were those people who were saying, “Well, these undecideds are going to break to us.”  I was saying no because the whole notion of undecideds breaking to the challenger are based on an [01:31:00] underlying structure.  And the underlying structure is they’re saying to themselves, “I know who this incumbent is and I don’t want to vote for them.  I don’t know enough about this challenger to decide I want to vote for them, but by election day, I’m going to get something that will give me enough justification to vote for that challenger.”  In this case, the undecideds knew both candidates and detested both candidates, and detested them in roughly equal measure.  So, there was no basis, it was not a situation where they were just sort of waiting to move one way or the other.  They were going to divide the way the rest of the electorate divided, and they did.

Q:                    The other thing is, and this is, again, provoked by something I’ve read that came from your mouth, national security, economics, but you have said that there was also a huge cultural cleavage in the electorate this year — social, moral, however you phrase it, that was more powerful than traditional notions of people vote their pocketbook.  Do you still feel that way?

MELLMAN:      Well, it’s not just then, [01:32:00] I mean, I think we’ve seen this culture divide, you know, for a while.  But yes, I mean, I think — and it’s not so much pocket, I’m going to be clear about this, it’s not so much pocketbook voting as class voting.  That is, culture more than class.  Pocketbooks still matter, if the economy’s going well, the incumbents are rewarded, if it’s going poorly, they’re punished, but the difference between sort of — the difference between a lower middle class person votes and an upper class person votes are — is far less than the difference between, say, a pro-choice and an anti-choice person vote.  The cultural issues, and it’s not just that, it’s not just choice, it’s that whole variety of cultural issues, tells you more about a person’s likelihood of voting one way or another than does their place in the class spectrum.  And as I say, it’s not just abortion.  If you asked about premarital sex, you’d have the same cultural cleavage, people who think premarital sex is OK vote Democrat, people who say premarital sex is not OK vote Republican.  That’s not an issue that’s in the public [01:33:00] domain, it’s not an issue that is — has political roots or antecedents, but that cultural difference tells you more about someone’s politics than does their class.