Transcription – Mike Shannon Interview

Q:                    You said earlier that one of the things you took out of the 2000 election was the importance of sort of the big events that you know are going to happen, and the country’s going to be paying attention to.  Can we turn to the conventions in ’04?  How well did you think the Democrats did?  What did you hope to accomplish at the Republican convention?  And do you think you succeeded?

SHANNON:      I think the Democrats had a very poor convention.  They — and when I say that, I think it’s — most conventions come down to the night [00:45:00] of the big acceptance speech by the presidential nominee, Thursday night.  Wednesday night’s usually the VP.  They ran a mechanically good convention, but from a message to the country, I think it was a big failure, and left us a big opening.  And I say that because, this was I think kind of a reflection of John Kerry’s broader strategy, John Kerry’s case to the American people was largely based on biography.  It was a very tough year with the war in Iraq going south, and I think John Kerry saw an opening from a message perspective to, as he did, report for duty.  And he based his campaign on his experience as a veteran, and as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  Somebody who knew foreign policy at a time when we were in a really tough war and a tough place globally.  And really built [00:46:00] his campaign around that, and it really crystallized when he did — when he stepped to the lectern and said, “Reporting for duty.”  And that’s what most people remember from that convention, is he reported for duty, and that he was a veteran, and he was a foreign policy expert.  He — I think because he was so focused on biography, he and his team did not spend enough time focused on an agenda.  No one really knew what his agenda was after that convention.  And I think that’s a trap for challengers.  We’ve seen that in a few other presidential campaigns, where the challenger spends so much time focused on the incumbent, he doesn’t sell his vision and his agenda.  And I think John Kerry got caught in that trap, especially — and I think that happens when your biography feels like it kind of fits the moment in time.  So there’s a lot of emphasis on biography, [00:47:00] so they got a small bump out of that convention, but I don’t think they set up the campaign the way they wanted to.  And so, we were able to go to New York and talk about the next — the agenda for the next four years.  We actually spent a lot of time talking about an agenda, which can be hard for an incumbent, because you’ve already done a lot, and you’ve got to talk about the promises made, and promises kept.  But we spent a lot of time talking about an agenda for America; we also had a great lineup of speakers that showed a diversity across the Republican Party.  And of course, being in New York, all the symbolism post-9/11 and Mayor Giuliani, and Arnold Schwarzenegger came and spoke, and we had a beautiful video called “The Pitch” about the president’s pitch at the Yankees playoff game, in the aftermath of 9/11.  Very, very well done convention, and gave us a real head of steam coming out [00:48:00] of New York.  And we also — I think the later you can have your conventions, the better.  To the extent that conventions are a moment in time where you can get some momentum and focus the American public, I think our — if you can have the second convention like we had in 2004, going second helps.  They had their chance, then we had our chance, and then we had the momentum coming out of that convention, and we had that momentum just I guess all the way until Miami, the first debate.

Q:                    Let’s pause there for a second, because one of the things that both campaigns decided to do for the fall was to take the federal money, just to take the 75 million, as opposed to going out and raising money on their own.  And the Kerry people will say that really hurt us, because we had a three month campaign after our election — after our convention, [00:49:00] and the Bush people had a two month campaign, we both had the same amount of money to spend, but they were able to spend it in a more concentrated way.  Why didn’t — I guess a question I’m pointing to here is why not say Uncle Sam, keep your 75 million and raise as much money as you can?  Run — do everything you want to do in a campaign, instead of having to make (overlapping dialogue; inaudible).

SHANNON:      You know, I wasn’t privy to all those discussions.  I think you’re right that we had like a 10 week sprint.  So one of the — I mean, one of the factors of the decision making process was how much money can we spend on TV, which is the lion’s share of a budget in a presidential campaign, in 10 weeks?  And how much money do we actually need to spend on TV?  And are there other pots of money that we can draw upon to be spent on TV?  And one of the things we did that fall, we were able to run joint advertising with the Republican National Committee, [00:50:00] where we were able to, in a sense, make the case for President Bush and the Congressional Republicans, as long as those two words were in the advertisement together, we were able to draw upon some Republican National Committee money.  So we were able to enlarge that 75 million kind of beyond it.  And that’s something that the Kerry team saw us do, and then they realized they could do it, and then they began doing it.  But we did it for a few weeks, and when you’re only in a 10 week fall campaign, they’ve lost a couple weeks.  So, they had a longer time period, and then they didn’t have the DNC money match like we had the RNC money.  We certainly had enough money.  I think there’s — there’s only so much — the diminishing marginal returns are significant when you get up to the amount of TV advertising we were buying.  At some point, it can almost be counterproductive.  [00:51:00]  So — and I think you have to maintain a big fundraising operation.  You have to have your candidate go and raise money.  Funders like to see the candidate.  And so, there are some strategic decisions in that small window about do we need to have our whole fundraising operation up, and dedicate all that time and energy, including possibly some of the candidate’s, to pursuing those dollars.  I think that may, you know, be the last time that candidates do that.  I know things have changed a lot with kind of raising money.

Q:                    Well, we will come back to the debates, which is what you were on the cusp of.  And I wanted to ask you this, after the election, there were news stories that quoted President Bush as having told Ken Mehlman and Karl, I’m not sure who, “Don’t give me a lonely victory.  I don’t want to win by an unnecessarily big margin when we could be taking some of our resources and helping Republicans get elected to Congress.”  Was that [00:52:00] part of the strategy, or was that a kind of ex post facto (overlapping dialogue; inaudible)?

SHANNON:      I did not have any visibility into that, and it didn’t affect, as far as I know, any of our day to day work.  Especially on the advertising, you know, placement side.  That’s where we spent the lion’s share of the campaign, and in fact, I mean we had a — money shows up at the end of presidential campaigns.  And I remember we were wrestling at the end, should we spend more money?  I mean we — it’s like, because you’re running a business that’s going to essentially cease to exist.  And so you’re having to be a good steward of that money over time, and you have a certain run rate of expenses, and you have a certain run rate of money coming in, and towards the end, usually if it’s a well run campaign, and Ken ran an extraordinary campaign, money starts kind of showing up right at the last day.  “Can you spend any more money in Ohio?”  I remember that was one of the last questions on the last day.  And I said no.  [00:53:00]  You know, there’s no more money to be spent, let’s just pay the staff through the end of November.

Q:                    The debates.  That’s another event that is so institutionalized now, the candidates, campaigns, voters know after the conventions that these are coming.  And yet, President Bush’s performance, at least in the first debate, was a kind of disappointing one.  How did that happen, and do you feel like you recovered from it in the subsequent debates?

SHANNON:      Well, we certainly recovered from it.  How it happened, I think that’s probably a question for the president.  Because I think he knows best whether he felt like it was an off night, or if he felt like he didn’t prepare well enough.  He seemed low energy, and he seemed like he, you know, wanted to be somewhere else.  And I think that’s part of [00:54:00] being an incumbent facing a challenger who’s not the president.  And we saw this in the most recent presidential election with President Obama, that first debate.  And there’s a history of that in kind of first debates with incumbents.  I think part of it is, for the first time, you see the two men on the same stage together, kind of in a one on one exchange, where there’s kind of the great equalizer.  And so I think it’s already a steep hill to climb for the incumbent, just by showing up, the challenger gains some credibility.  But yeah, I call it the hot night in Miami.  It was definitely a moment in time in the campaign where you felt a little air coming out of the balloon.  And we had kind of a — we established a nice kind of four or five, six point lead coming out of the convention, maybe settling in around four.  But we gave some of that [00:55:00] early work, you know, kind of gave it back that night.  But the president did very well the next two debates, and really stabilized the campaign dynamics, and we always thought it would be a two to three point race.  And of course, by the end, it was a 2.7, 2.8 race.  And things kind of settled back into that natural dynamic.