Transcription – Mark Mellman Interview

Q:                    You said that when you joined the campaign, if you’d had to bet, you would have bet that Bush will be reelected.  Part of that was because of fundamentals, yeah?

MELLMAN:      Right.

Q:                    What are the indices that would tell you the president is ripe for being defeated?  You know, based on previous experience.

MELLMAN:      Well, incumbents are really never ripe for being defeated, especially when you may have a two-term limit here, especially when they’re going for that second party term, and not the third or fourth party term.  If they’re going for the third or fourth party term, then you have incumbents, and that was George Bush the father’s case, was defeated.  He was running for a fourth party term at that point, not a second, not even a third, but a fourth.  Which is, you know, that’s hard to do.  That makes you more ripe for defeat.  Second, [00:37:00] you have to look at the economic circumstances and again, the economy was not great, but it was not so bad as to preclude a president from being reelected.  I mean, in fact, if my recollection serves — and it may not — the economy was in better shape than it was when President Obama was reelected as an incumbent, depending on exactly how you measure things, and so on.  But so, incumbents, again, certainly running for a second party term, are really never really ripe for defeat.

Q:                    Was there a time during your involvement in the campaign when you thought, “Now, I think we are going to win,” or, “If we do these things, we’re going to win”?

MELLMAN:      Yes.  I thought there was a time, there was one time when I thought we were going to win.  It was election night, when the exit poll people called me and told me that we were winning Ohio and Florida and various and sundry other places.  And they said, “There’s really little doubt about it.”  So, once they told me that, that’s the first time I believe we [00:38:00] were going to win.  (laughter)  And when they started changing those projections, I went back to my previous viewpoint.

Q:                    What is it with exit polls?  Because, I mean, they were spectacularly wrong, and you think of these as massive-sample polls of people who are actually voting, you don’t have to guess, are they likely voters or not.  Had you historically suspected exit polls?  Was this an outlier in being so wildly off the mark?

MELLMAN:      Well, it wasn’t really.  I mean, exit polls get a bad rap, I think, and first of all, I worked for CBS during the election nights, usually.  Not that year because I was working on the campaign.  And I’m sort of watching those exit polls, and I sat there all night, was it in 2000, you know, all night because the calls and the pulled back, and so on and so forth.  And so, saw the failures of the exit polls up close and had studied the studies of those failures, so I was intimately familiar with the [00:39:00] prospects for failure.  But in some sense, they get a bad rap because part of what’s happening here is that people are looking at these early exit polls and saying, “Well, they’re wrong.”  Well, you know, if you went to Detroit and said, you know, “Give me that car off the line,” and they said, “Well, wait a second, it’s not done yet,” you know, “We haven’t installed all the parts yet, it’s still on the line,” you said, “Well, no, give it to me anyway,” and then complained that it didn’t work, that’d be sort of silly.  And the same thing is true here:  they’re not made to work until they’re done, and a lot of the stuff that goes around that people get hooked on and talk about really is before they’re done.  So, that’s one problem.  A second problem is that there are some known biases of exit polls.  One of the biases is that they’re biased towards Democrats, for various reasons, and there is a method for correcting that, which they actually employ, but again, it takes some real data, [00:40:00] real election data, to make those corrections.  And so, the fact is, they’re just a lot more accurate, you know, later than they are earlier.  And the earlier you get the information, the less accurate it is.  In this case, you know, first of all, you have the triumph of hope over experience, but you also have some, you know, people who are sitting there at the desks watching this data, saying, “Oh, it looks pretty strong to me.”  So, you know, you sort of trust those people a little bit, but there’d have been lots of good reasons not to.

Q:                    So, that was the one time when you thought —

MELLMAN:      The one time.

Q:                    Well, let me take a different tack, here.

MELLMAN:      And honestly, I wasn’t even sure of that.  I can’t remember, they were saying we were winning one of those states, first, then they said both, both Ohio and Florida.  It was only when they said both did I really think because, OK, well, you know, maybe we’ll lose one of them, but if we win either one of them, we’re fine.  [00:41:00]

Q:                    Right.  Let’s take it back even as late as Super Tuesday, because then it’s clear to all that Kerry’s going to be the nominee, but he’s broke, essentially.  Now, I know you’re on the spending side, but there wasn’t much money to spend.

MELLMAN:      Correct.

Q:                    And meanwhile, the Bush people —

MELLMAN:      Are going crazy.

Q:                    — were able to raise all kinds of money for the nominating contest and they didn’t spend any of it getting the nomination.  Tons of money.

MELLMAN:      Exactly.

Q:                    And what are they doing in that spring of ’04, and is it working?

MELLMAN:      They’re beating the heck out of Senator Kerry, and it is working.  Not in totally dramatic form, but it’s working enough to create real problems, not only then, but later.  And to seed problems which sprout even more dramatically later.  So, they’re spending money, they’re attacking us on television, [00:42:00] at a point when we can’t respond in similar terms.  And that was a huge problem from the get-go.

Q:                    What were the — What’s the case that would be made by the Bush campaign?

MELLMAN:      The flip-flop case, at that point, if I remember correctly.

Q:                    And you know, this (inaudible) example, that, from a Republican standpoint, was March 17, speaking in West Virginia, Senator Kerry says, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”

MELLMAN:      Right.  Now, they were attacking that, and again, part of the point is they were attacking that angle before, I believe, on television before Senator Kerry said that, and then had that unfortunate turn of phrase which fueled the attack even more.  And it was very fortunate, from their point of view, very unfortunate from ours, because it reinforced the story that they were trying to tell.