Transcription – Mark Mellman Interview

Q:                    Is there a pattern?  I mean, you’ve been involved in a lot of campaigns.  Is there a pattern to incumbent presidents in the first debate almost invariably screwing up because they just [01:05:00] don’t want to do the homework?

MELLMAN:      Be there.  Well, I don’t want to say…  I can think of several examples, (laughter) let me put it that way, whether it’s a clear pattern, I guess I haven’t looked at it carefully enough to know.  But there’s certainly a number of examples.  But in this case, it wasn’t just the first debate.  I mean, the first debate was, you know, certainly a great victory for Kerry, but the other two were, too, and that was not the case, say, with President Obama, who by most accounts didn’t do so well in the first debate, but certainly by the second and third, did.  That was not the case with President Bush.

Q:                    Well, you said earlier, and I think it’s still applicable, that every new increment of information about a president is just adding, you know, a grain of sand to the beach, and are people still learning about Kerry?

MELLMAN:      Oh, very much so, very much so.  Most people, you know, they knew the name and they had some basic, you know, like this, but they didn’t have much texture.  They didn’t have much information.  [01:06:00]  There are a lot of people that, you know, before the convention, a lot of people didn’t know he had been in Vietnam, for example.  By the end of the convention, many people knew that.  But you know, these things are not necessarily even the basics of background and positions and so on for these challenges, are not widely known.

Q:                    Now, the Bush people will say, “All right, regardless of, you know, who won each debate, what people remembered about the debates was Mary Cheney, global tests,” in other words, they feel like they were able to take the extracts from those debates and turn them into political gold.  What do you say to that (overlapping dialogue; inaudible)?

MELLMAN:      I think they turned it into political bronze, not gold.  Look, I mean, you know, yes, it’s true that they did a good job with that.  I don’t take that away from them.  [01:07:00]  That didn’t decide the election, nor did it even decide people’s positions on the debate.  You know…  At the end of the day, I just don’t think things turned on those snippets.  But you know, there are certainly — they certainly did do an effective job trying to mitigate the victories that Senator Kerry had in the debates with those individual nuggets.

Q:                    This is just speculating, but back to the Edwards choice, was part of the calculus that having been such a successful trial lawyer, thinking on his feet, connecting with, you know, jurors and so on, that he would wipe up the floor with Vice President Cheney?

MELLMAN:      Well, that’s a little too strong, but as I said before, I mean, I think there was a sense that he — and look, it wasn’t just as a trial lawyer.  He demonstrated this on the campaign trail, in the primaries, he was a compelling speaker and did a great job in using his speaking and using his oratory skills to generate [01:08:00] a significant following.

Q:                    The Kerry campaign, did you see the general election as a national campaign, or as a series of state campaigns?

MELLMAN:      Series of state campaigns, very much.

Q:                    Could you talk about that?

MELLMAN:      Sure.  We had, you know, the winners write history, as you know, and so…  So, they get all the plaudits for the technological achievements and so on, but one of the things that we did which was later copied by the Obama campaign, but we were the first that ever did it, to my knowledge, we developed a simulation model that fed in all the polling data, both ours and the public data, and historical voting information, economic information, all sorts of information, into a model.  And we ran, I think it was 200,000, maybe 600,000, I can’t remember exactly, [01:09:00] simulations a week and used that to allocate our resources state by state.  And so, what we were looking for is you run those simulations, how often is that state pivotal, that is, both close and decisive?  And that, you could go through a lot of math, but at the end of the day, what you prove is that percentage is roughly the percentage of your effort you should devote to that state.  And so, we looked at it very much as a state by state contest.  We updated these simulations each week, ran several hundred thousand each week, and then based on that, made resource allocations week by week.  Both in terms of money and in terms of candidate time.  And at the end, as was evident, you know, Florida and Ohio emerged as the places that were the most pivotal.  And not the only places, but the places that were most pivotal.  But anyway, we were certainly look at it as a state by state [01:10:00] contest.  Second, we did a whole micro-targeting effort as well in the — on our side.  We had much less time to prepare for it and much less time to experiment with it.  You know, if someone — we didn’t get the keys to the DNC database until, I can’t remember exactly, but quite late in the process because we weren’t —

Q:                    After the convention?

MELLMAN:      It might have been before the convention, but I mean, they had it for four years on their side.  We didn’t even have it for a year.  So, it was before the convention, I’m pretty sure, but it was not…

Q:                    It was not in March?  Not in April?

MELLMAN:      No, it wasn’t in March, right, right.  Yes, it wasn’t in July, either, but it was somewhere in between.  So, the — in any event, with that data, we put together micro-targeting models that gave us a sense, in each state that was a target state, what was our likelihood of winning?  And sorry, not winning, [01:11:00] what was the likelihood of each voter being a swing voter?  And we wanted our state directors to use that information for targeting.  Tremendous resistance on the part of a lot of them, even those who later complained about the fact that the Republicans had this sort of technological advantage.  Some of those were the same people that refused to use the same technology that we gave them, that the Republicans were using, and we didn’t quite have the same command and control structures to force them to use it, that they did on the president’s side.  So, and indeed, we were criticized.  The Kerry campaign was criticized quite a bit during and after the campaign for not running a 50-state campaign, for being a targeted campaign, but it always eluded me as to why that was, what the substance of that critique was.  Had we spent more in North Dakota, would we have somehow won?  I don’t really understand what the argument was.  But in any event, we looked at it very much as a state by state effort.