Interviewee: Mike Shannon
Current: Partner, Vianovo
In 2004: Strategist for Media Buying and Deputy to Matthew Dowd, Chief Campaign Strategist for Bush-Cheney Re-Election Campaign
Interviewer: Dr. Michael Nelson
Fulmer Professor of Political Science, Rhodes College
Fellow, SMU Center for Presidential History
March 10, 2014
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: Mike Shannon, what — where does your connection with George W. Bush begin? When did you first get associated in any way with, I guess then Governor Bush?
SHANNON: Then-Governor Bush, it was early 2000, I was working in corporate finance, and was considering going to graduate school at the time, and a good friend of mine suggested that if I wanted to do something that I had a passion about, but had never done in my life before I went to grad school, that I should do it before I went to grad school, not after — not try to pursue it after. And one of passions was politics, and so I began to think about what I might do, in that election year, and I actually went up to Washington to visit with some Senate and House offices, and everybody up there said the exact same thing to me. “What are you doing up here? Your governor’s running for president, and you’re a Republican. You need to turn back around [00:01:00] and go back down to Austin and find a way to get on that campaign.” And so, I came back down — I lived in Houston at the time — and just started doing what everybody who gets on a presidential campaign does at the beginning, which is calling people, “Do you know so and so? Do you know anybody, do you know anybody on the campaign that knows somebody?” And a friend of a friend had a friend who worked on the strategy for George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign, a guy names Israel Hernandez. And started calling up to talk to Israel, he was very busy, and a couple weeks went by, and finally I got him live on the phone one day, and he agreed to have lunch with me. And I drove from Houston to Austin, and after a, after an hour lunch, he said “We don’t have any paid slots, but if you want to join as a volunteer on the strategy team, I think — let me talk to Karl [00:02:00] Rove, and see if he’s OK with it, and you can start, and we’ll kind of go from there, see if you can work your way onto staff.” And I said, “When do you need me?” And this was on a Wednesday afternoon, and he said, “How about Monday morning?” And I said, “That’s pretty fast.” He said, “Well, you can — there’s plenty of couches to sleep on.” So, I drove from Houston to Austin with my car packed on that Monday morning in I guess early March, it was right before Super Tuesday, right around when the primaries were coming to their climax in the year 2000. And started in a bullpen, essentially a giant cubicle with about eight other people in the strategy team; it was called the Lincoln Lounge. And that’s where my career, politically and with President Bush, began.
Q: And the strategy group consisted of?
SHANNON: [00:03:00] So, you know, campaign to campaign, strategy groups have different functions. Almost always at their core is message development: what is this campaign about, broadly? Also, part of that, really hand in glove, is the advertising budget: TV, radio, print, internet. So what are we going to say, how are we going to say it on TV and online? In 2000, the strategy team also had the direct mail program, though by 2004, we shifted that over to the political group, and I think that has been where it’s resided in most presidential campaigns recently. And to get to the message and the advertising core of the strategy team’s activities is conducting all of the research –polling, focus groups, message testing. So, I began [00:04:00] working on that team, and was really not doing sophisticated stuff to start. I was answering phones, filing mail pieces, inventorying mail pieces. And my life on that campaign, and I guess really my life professionally going forward changed when one day, Karl Rove stuck his head out of his office and said, “Does anybody here know how to use PowerPoint?” And I stuck my head up, and I said, “I do.” And that began a long partnership that I had with Karl, helping him put together his PowerPoints, which he used to brief everybody on the campaign strategy, from big funders to the field staff to eventually Secretary Cheney at the convention in Philadelphia that year in 2000. And the other thing that happened to me is that a guy started showing up at the campaign, and sitting in the Lincoln [00:05:00] Lounge right next to me, asking me for help. He’d say, “Can you help me track these media buys? Can you help me do a PowerPoint on this polling? Can you start tracking some polls for me?” And that was Matthew Dowd, and a couple — about a month after he started showing up in the Lincoln Lounge, he took the office next to Karl. And so I began to work as Matthew’s deputy. He was in charge of polling and media buying for the 2000 campaign. And started — you know, spent most of the 2000 campaign focused on polling and media buying, working with Karl on his strategy presentations, and also in 2000, the internet was in its infancy, politically for sure, but really just in its infancy for, you know, as a medium. And we had an email program and a website, and so I worked on the digital team as well. Kind of thinking through what we might do with our email program, what we might do [00:06:00] with our website.
Q: Fast forwarding to the end of the 2000 campaign, what did you learn from that experience individually, but also what did the Bush campaign team learn from that experience that sort of shaped the planning for 2004?
SHANNON: Well, that campaign was one that seemed to go on forever for us on staff, because of the Florida recount. And we got to election night, which was on November 7, and we had a motto in the Lincoln Lounge that we’ll sleep November 8. And of course, late on November 7, or maybe early on November 8, it became apparent that we weren’t going to be sleeping. And planes started leaving for Florida, and we got into a long recount that didn’t conclude until December. And it was a little bit — [00:07:00] I always describe it like, it was like we had been running a marathon, and we crossed the finish line, and then they said, “You’ve got to keep running.” And you ask, “Well, when’s it going to be over? Is it two miles, is it three miles?” And they said, “We don’t know.” And so, I think part of what we learned in 2000, which you know philosophically and you say, is that every vote actually does count. And that everybody on the campaign, whether it’s the fundraising team or the treasury team or the political team or the strategy team or the communications team, each person’s role is very important, because at the end of the day, we were down to 537 votes in Florida. And I think something I learned, and a lot of the strategy team learned, is that presidential campaigns are largely shaped in different windows of time. Though they’re very long, there are moments in time that can move the race significantly. [00:08:00] And so as we saw the ebb and flow of 2000 come and go, we saw how important the conventions were, we saw how important the debates were, we saw how important unexpected events were, like the video that was released just a couple days before the election — well, I guess it wasn’t a video; it was the news about Governor Bush’s drunk driving arrest. And we were going into that weekend with a lot of momentum, felt really good, Larry King Live was Ross Perot on Thursday night, he was going to be endorsing Governor Bush. A wonderful story about this former presidential candidate who had been a foe of his father’s endorsing George W. Bush going into Election Day. That was really lost; that’s kind of a footnote to history now. No one I talk to remembers [00:09:00] that. And so we learned about the impact of these high moments that we need to focus enough resources and thought on those moments. Really commensurate with what the impact that they could have on the campaign. And we also began to think about media strategy, digital, advertising buying, how could we do all of the — you know, kind of the mechanics of a presidential campaign more efficiently, make our money go farther, reach people where they were, rather than just kind of the old model of throwing tons of money up on TV and kind of hoping, you know, hoping it worked.