Transcription – Mike Shannon Interview

Q:                    You mentioned the pre-election year planning.  Other than knowing you were going to be using digital media a lot more, and what you just mentioned, what — you came back into the campaign on the first of January.  What was the state of that campaign in terms of developing a strategy for the coming year?

SHANNON:      There had been a lot of groundwork done in the previous 18 months.  And in particular, [00:19:00] on the strategy side, two political innovations were progressing along, and would come to full fruition later that year.  One of them was micro-targeting.  Over the previous year or two, we had done some experiments where we would essentially take the voter file, append a bunch of consumer data bought from third-party vendors like Axiom, where they gather things about magazine subscriptions, and number of kids, and other demographics, and consumer habits, purchasing data from credit cards.  We had appended it to the voter file, so we’d have people’s names and addresses, and voting history, and then we’d have all this consumer data, and then we’d take a large sample poll, 4 or 5,000 people in each state.  And the theory behind micro-targeting is that we could predict [00:20:00] with higher accuracy whether somebody was a Republican or Democrat or swing voter.  And also, get a sense of what kind of Republican or Democrat or swing voter they were, so we could better target the message on a micro level, hence micro-targeting, to those people.  And so, a lot of work had been done on that by the time I arrived, and we were considering whether we wanted to invest a lot of money in that effort, which we ended up doing.  And that was a big innovation; of course that feels like it should be in a museum now with everything that has happened since then, from a big data and targeting perspective.  But at the time was a big leap in how we identified and targeted voters.  It — I think there’s some mythology around micro-targeting, that it — somehow, I could send you just the right message, [00:21:00] and that message would motivate you on Election Day to go to the polls, because you’re — you were a flagging family Republican, and you got a piece of mail, and that helped us win the election.  I think ultimately, that kind of micro-targeting message in a big presidential context, has limited power.  There’s so many other things, so many other pieces of information that people are receiving about a presidential campaign, in the earned media, the free media.  I think where it came — where it was very powerful in our campaign is that from our targeting for get out the vote efforts, where we would send door knockers and phone calls, and mail to get people out to vote.  Instead of doing it on a precinct basis, where we’d say well, we’re going to go to this precinct, because it’s heavily Republican, so we’re going to focus our get out the votes efforts there, but these Democratic precincts, we’re not going to go there because we know if we knock on doors, there’s a good chance it’ll be a Democrat, and that’ll be counterproductive.  We don’t want to remind Democrats [00:22:00] that they need to vote.  With micro-targeting, we were able to go into precincts, into places we wouldn’t have normally gone, to call numbers we wouldn’t have normally called, and to ask them to vote.  Deliver a message that may be better tailored for them, but I think the power of micro-targeting was less in targeting the message, and just knowing which voters we wanted to get out.  And part of the theory of the 2004 election that our strategy team has, this was a mobilization election, be highly partisan, kind of who can get their base out, that the middle for this election was small, swing voters in aggregate were smaller than in previous years.  Partly because it was a reelection, and there were very strong opinions about the president, partly because of the dynamics of the American electorate had been changing over time.  And so, micro-targeting was a very [00:23:00] important political innovation that had been worked on for quite a while.  And then we made the big investment in it.  The other thing that was really a quantum leap in how we spend our money on TV, had to do with our advertising targeting.  Separate from micro-targeting, around 2002, one of the chief researchers at our main ad agency was in a meeting with the president of a data company called Scarborough Research.  And as they were talking, and talking about the types of information that Scarborough Research collected on TV viewers, Will Feltus, who works at National Media, stumbled across a couple of questions that were being asked of all these TV viewers.  One of them was, “Are you registered to vote?”  A second was, “Are you a Democrat or Republican?”  And [00:24:00] the third was, “How often do you vote in elections?”  And he said, “Are these available, these questions, to cross against people’s TV habits?”  And they said, “Yes.”  And that was kind of a light bulb moment, really kind of a seminal moment in political advertising buying.  What we were able to do, working with National Media, using Scarborough data, is for each market we bought an ad in, we were able to buy shows that indexed high, meaning Republicans were much more likely to watch that show than another show.  Indexed high Republican, or indexed high Republicans and swing voters.  In a presidential election, you don’t want to send — buy a lot of TV ads for Democrats; that usually is wasted advertising, or even counterproductive advertising, because it causes them to turn out.  So, that was kind of a — that was an extraordinary find [00:25:00] by Will and National Media, and because of that, we were able to buy our television advertising much different than we had in 2000, and than any campaign had ever done in the past.  In the past, you relied upon Nielsen data, Nielsen data and Scarborough data, but most people are familiar with the Nielsen ratings.  Nielsen data you’d buy on things like age and sex.  So you’d buy — might buy, you know, men 18 to 49, the traditional political buyer might buy adults, 35-plus.  We went from doing that to let’s buy Republican shows, and Republican and swing voter shows.

Q:                    So for example?

SHANNON:      So, well, I will say what we found is that shows like, that you would guess would be Republican were Republican.  Things like CSI, [00:26:00] and NCIS, shows like that index very high Republican.  Probably more important, or just as important as finding out which shows indexed high Republican, is we found out that Republicans generally watch a lot less TV than Democrats.  We called it the “grip gap.”  So Gross Rating Points is that — if you buy — if you just went out and bought some TV, you were likely to have your ads seen by more Democrats than Republicans.  And so, what we were able to then find out is well, we know Republicans watch TV, but we needed to find out when they watch TV in larger numbers than Democrats.  What we found out is that was usually on weekends, and often in prime time or late at night, and so in the ad buying industry, those are called day parts.  So we were able to shift our ads into different time slots that were more Republican, and we also found out that Republicans watched a lot less traditional broadcast TV, [00:27:00] like NBC or ABC or CBS.  They watched cable — certain cable networks in high numbers.  And so we found out we should be advertising on the Country Music Channel, we should be advertising on the History Channel, Republicans watch a lot of live sports, so we reoriented our entire buying strategy to make sure that it was efficient, and those dollars went much further than in the year 2000.  I will say that the advertising landscape in 2004 was dramatically different than 2000.  In 2000, there were four main advertisers.  There was the Bush campaign, the Gore campaign, the DNC, and the RNC, the two national committees.  By 2004, with the way money was working in politics, campaign finance reform, political innovation, a lot of third-party groups emerged.  This was really [00:28:00] the beginning of where we are now, you know, 10 years later, of third-party groups exerting their influence on elections through advertising.  And it was —

Q:                    Third-party meaning?

SHANNON:      Third-party meaning, there were several — it was mainly on the Democratic side for most of the year, until we got to the fall.  Early on, there were several large groups, liberal money, that went on the air, March, April, May, June, July, August.  By August, two allied groups with our campaign that wanted the president to win came on that proved critical in the broader debate.  Most people know about Swift Boat Veterans for Truth; that came on I think in August.  And then I think it was called Progress America came on that fall and spent a lot of money in [00:29:00] September and October.  Our campaign itself, in coordination with the RNC, I think we allocated — well, I think we spent about $230, $240 million on advertising for the full year, which was a big spend, much bigger than we’d spent in the year 2000.  All that being said, we were outspent most of the months until we got to October, when you added up the outside spending.  So that was new, and one other thing that was new about advertising is — and this gets to the technological change over four years, is that you could make ads much faster.  You could transmit ads much faster.  So the tools of the trade had begun to change, much more accessible to people.  We didn’t have iPhones back there, so there weren’t [00:30:00] trackers going around taking videos, but you could get in the edit studio, you could make an ad, and you could get it shipped to a station digitally; you didn’t have to send a tape or a disc to a station in the mail.  And that changed some of the speed of the campaign.  As far as advertising went, we made a lot more ads in 2004 than we made in 2000.  And probably the most important moment where we were able to make a quick ad and get that ad somewhere quickly presented itself early in the campaign with Senator Kerry going to West Virginia, it was — we decided we were going to make an ad to talk about his voting against funding for the troops.  We made the ad, and he did something that no candidate should ever do at any level, in any race anywhere, which [00:31:00] is he responded to an ad in a town hall.  And he uttered his now famous phrase, “I did vote for it before I voted against it.”  And he was actually talking about our ad, the attack that had been leveled that morning, and those are — you know, ad makers dream about those kinds of moments.  There’s not many of those, and so we had an ad that caused a response, that then turned into a second ad, which was then — we took his town hall statement and put it in the ad.  And at that moment, it had changed from an ad to a gigantic story.  And that was, I think, it was a moment where we felt like we had proven a theory that we had going into the campaign, which was that our advertising should largely be geared towards affecting the broader conversation.  That changing someone’s opinion [00:32:00] while they’re on the couch watching TV, watching ER, and a commercial flashes across the screen, there’s so much other information that affects voters that they get tired, they get worn out, that their decision making process is much more complex than “I just saw that ad,” that what we really wanted to do with our creative pieces was to affect the broader debate in the campaign, and to create moments in time that mattered.  And I think that was a big moment in that campaign.  It cemented the charge that we were making against Senator Kerry, that he flip-flopped, and he kind of fell into that trap.