Transcription – Mike Shannon Interview

Q:                    Yeah, you mentioned the rise of the third-party or independent actors running ads, and so on. Strategically,you have a plan for winning the election, and that plan involves communicating certain messages, and then there are these other people out there communicating messages.  [00:33:00]  Did you see their activities, the ones on your side, as contributing to the Bush reelection, or impeding in some way what you were hoping to accomplish, the messages you were hoping to send?

SHANNON:      Oh, you mean the allied groups that were running third-party ads?

Q:                    Yes, yes.

SHANNON:      Yeah, it was a strange phenomenon, in 2000 you kind of — there was an ad placed, it was kind of like the Bush campaign placed their ads on Mondays, and the DNC placed it on Tuesdays, and the RNC placed it on Wednesdays, and Al Gore placed his on Thursdays.  And then another week would start.  That’s just kind of how — there was a rhythm, weekly buys, here are the ads — 2004 began this era of the Wild West, with all these third-party advertisers, where at any moment, we might get an email from CMAG, which is a service that tracks political advertising, saying that just went up with a new spot, or the Media Group just went up with a new spot, or the labor unions just went up with a new spot.  Or when we got to [00:34:00] August and September and October, Progress for America just went up with a spot, or the Swift Boats went up for — you know, with a spot.  Our third parties didn’t come in until towards the end of the campaign.  So most of the early part of the campaign, we were trying to figure out how much we needed to match the spend of those third parties in different media markets.  Were those attacks having any — you know, gaining any traction?  Were they hurting in the polls at all?  By the time we got to the fall and those kind of pro-Bush third parties emerged, it was actually nice to know that the other side was going to now have to be dealing with some anti-Kerry third-party advertising.  Because it — you know, it certainly throws you off-balance.  I think from a spend perspective, [00:35:00] the pro-Kerry third-party groups didn’t — I don’t think they affected the race much.  And I think — because ultimately, it’s about the power of the ad, and the message, it’s not about how much money they were spending. And of course, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, they made an ad that echoed throughout the presidential campaign.  And to the extent that campaigns are about moments, that was one of those moments in the campaign where everybody in the country kind of paused and looked and listened, and made some judgments.  Progress for America also made a really beautiful spot towards the end that was one of the most recalled ads of the presidential election, it showed the president hugging a young girl who had lost a family member in 9/11, a very emotional moment, and it’s hard to break through with a positive ad in a presidential campaign, but a very powerful ad.  So, [00:36:00] those — our third parties made some spots that had impact, regardless of how much they spent.  I think the other side’s third parties, their investment didn’t have a very big return.

Q:                    I know that legally, a campaign can’t consult with third parties —

SHANNON:      That’s right.

Q:                    — you can’t coordinate, but is there any sort of signaling going on?  You know, we’re talking about this, so guys, you know, if you want to talk about that, we’re going positive, so guys, if you want to go — any of that going on?

SHANNON:      Yeah.  I stayed as far away from that as I possibly could.  It was early on in this era of third-party advertising, and I had long discussions with our general counsel about that very topic, Tom Josefiak, and it was one of those things where you have an instinct, [00:37:00] you want to.  I remember, I was at a party, I saw somebody I knew was working for a third-party, and I just turned and walked the other way, because I didn’t even want to be seen talking to them.  Now all that being said, we monitored all their buys extraordinarily closely.  And one of the debates inside the campaign was, should we be looking at our spending versus Kerry’s spending, or should we be looking at our spending and our allies’ spending versus Kerry’s spending and his allies’ spending?  And I think ultimately you have to add everybody’s efforts up, kind of all at once.  But it’s also very hard to track in the heat of a presidential campaign all those different ads.  That was one of the great challenges of 2004, you’re tracking all the ads, you’re not sure how much they’re running, because campaigns that are third-party expenditure campaigns pay a lot of money for ads, much more than presidential candidates.  So we might get some market intelligence say [00:38:00] they spent this much, but we weren’t sure how much it bought them.

Q:                    The reason for that is they get a less favorable rate?

SHANNON:      They get a less favorable rate; they’re often buying at the last second.  So those two things combined, it just — there was a little bit of a fog that year as far as what these third party groups kind of spending meant.  But we didn’t see a lot of impact, you know, in the polls.  We made a decision early on that we were going to space our advertising out, where we had two or three really focused bursts of advertising.  Strategic windows in the campaign where we felt like let’s — we’re always going to have some minimum level, but we’re going to have a spike and a surge, and then we’ll kind of get back to a minimum level, and spike, and surge, because we have limited resources.  And one of those windows was right out of the gate in that March timeframe when John Kerry became the nominee.  We spent a lot of money.  If you look at a chart of our [00:39:00] spending, it just went like this, then we kind of tapered off in April, then it really dropped down over the summer.  And we were outspent when you include those third parties, all summer long.  And then when we got to the convention, which was end of August, beginning of September, in New York, then we said it’s time again to kind of make that burst.  We kind of, we’d saved up some resources for that sprint to the finish line.

Q:                    Was that early burst, the one in March and April, was that because although Kerry had won the nomination, his identity hadn’t yet been established in the minds of voters —

SHANNON:      That’s right, that’s right.

Q:                    — and you wanted to do that before he did?

SHANNON:      That’s right.  He’s new to the national stage, and it’s a moment for him to define himself, for us to define him.  At that point in time, when you’re running for reelection, everybody knows who the president is and what he stands for.  So the big question is, who’s the alternative?  And so, we were ready for that moment, [00:40:00] and we marshaled a lot of our resources financially for TV for that moment.  And kind of came out of the gates swinging.  But there’s that — that window closes after about 30 or 60 days where people who are making those initial impressions — and it includes the media, because the media’s making their initial impressions, and that’s part of shaping creative advertising to impact the broader dialogue, is it’s not just about voters, there’s the gatekeepers of a presidential election, which are largely the media.  And so, we wanted to make sure we came out strong during that 30 to 60 day window, when there was a debate on who is John Kerry.  And I think we were very effective, and then we knew really the next big moment for the campaign that we could control was going to be the convention.  But a lot of things happened between then and the convention, and we took on a lot of water, Abu Ghraib happened, there were some, [00:41:00] you know, pretty dark moments, kind of early summer, fell behind a little bit.  But the campaign, there seemed to be a natural kind of two to three point advantage, with some dips here and there, or some spikes.  We seemed to have it most of the time.  I do want to mention something about technology, changes in campaigns over the years, and in particular between 2000 and 2004, is the advent of the BlackBerry.  This hasn’t been talked a lot about in political circles, at least, you know, in journalism, but what happened between 2000 and 2004 was pretty remarkable from a day to day life of campaign staff member, day to day life of a journalist.  In the year 2000, when I left the campaign, [00:42:00] it may have been eleven o’clock at night, it may have been one o’clock in the morning; when I went home, I went home.  And I was largely uninterrupted.  Sleep, see friends, talk to somebody.  If someone on the campaign had a need, and needed to reach me, they needed to call me on my cell phone.  Broadband penetration was very low then; it was just at its beginning.  Very few people had campaign laptops.  If they did, they had really slow dial-in.  And so, there was some semblance of life outside of a campaign.  When you’re at the campaign headquarters, you’re on campaign time, and when you weren’t, unless there was an emergency, people weren’t going to call you in the middle of the night.  By 2004, we’d entered the smartphone era, and in particular the BlackBerry era.  So everybody had BlackBerrys on both campaigns, and all the journalists had BlackBerrys.  And so, all — that created this extraordinary velocity that we didn’t have [00:43:00] in 2000, where reporters are emailing the candidates, emailing the campaign, emailing each other, constantly.  Campaign staff is emailing each other constantly, CCing each other constantly.  And I remember early on in the campaign, I went to bed one night, and it was like 1:00 in the morning and I woke up at 6:00, and I had like 100 emails.  And that was a new phenomenon, because in the year 2000, you’d go maybe leave real late, and you get back in the morning, and maybe someone was there overnight sending a few emails, but your inbox was not that full.  And you could wake up in the morning in 2004 and find out there’s new ads that have been launched, because somebody shipped something overnight, and new stories were breaking, and there’s chains of emails happening.  So it was a much more grinding campaign.  And of course, that’s only intensified the last two [00:44:00] presidential campaigns, 2008, 2012, with the advent of social media.  But it is — it’s hard to imagine presidential campaigns without smartphones.  And 2004 was really the first campaign.  It was the modern campaign, it was the smartphone campaign.  Really changed things.