Transcription – Walter Shapiro Interview

Q:              Do you have any other observations about John Kerry, as a candidate?

SHAPIRO:   Yeah.  I think John Kerry’s biggest mistake was firing the guy — or allowing a situation to develop in which the guy who did the best ads, to put John Kerry in the best light, Jim Margolis, left the campaign in February or March of 2004.  What people forget about 2004, [01:06:00] which was how close it was.  That, had Kerry gotten 119,000 more votes in Ohio, he would have won the election.  It was that close.  That Ohio would have given him an Electoral College majority, even though he lost by three million votes in the popular vote.  But the main reason he lost the popular vote so badly is Karl Rove and company, aware that the moral argument that Al Gore had, coming out of 2000, that he won the popular vote, therefore, simultaneously ran ads on national cable television, to get out the Republican base, run up the vote totals in places like Texas.

So at one point — and I don’t have the numbers here; I’m doing this from memory, and it’s not on the books, so there’s not — [01:07:00] I believe that a million to a million and a half of the three million vote Bush margin, was the fact that the Bush campaign was trying to maximize his popular vote, and the Kerry campaign was only focused on electoral votes.  So what I’m trying to say is that 2004 was much closer than people remember it.  And the Kerry people, much like the Romney people in 2012, totally believed that they were going to win.

I had a very good off-the-record source, who was sitting in the front of the plane with Kerry, and who would not speak to me at Kerry rallies, said, “I don’t want anyone to see me talking to the press, but here’s my cell phone number.”  So, I remember, [01:08:00] we’d be 100 feet apart, and having cell phone conversations that were totally off-the-record, which is why I’m not going to give his name now.  But the point was, he was totally convinced that Kerry was going to win.  Other sources I had, inside the Kerry campaign were totally convinced that Kerry was going to win.

In 2004, Jeff Greenfield and other people have always organized an Election Day lunch in New York, which consists of some of the network anchors, people like Jill Abramson, who now the editor of the Times, is a regular.  It’s about 30, 40 people.  And in 2004, Tom Brokaw brought Newt Gingrich, because Newt Gingrich was going to do on-the-air commentary that night for NBC.  And as we’re sitting there, the [01:09:00] early leaked exit polls come out of maybe 1:00, [inaudible].  And the early — and this was the year the exit polls were just grotesquely wrong, particularly the first wave.  And these numbers have Kerry running, even in South Carolina, sweeping everything.  Mickey Kaus ended up calling this Kerry euphoria the seven-hour presidency, which I’ve always loved.  But I remembered Newt just going off on, “I told Rove.  I told Bush.  They’re doing it wrong.  We should have won this election, but they blew it.”  (laughter)

But what I’m trying to say is, looking back on the Kerry campaign, you can do lots of things he should have done.  Another example is, the mantra for the Democratic Convention in [01:10:00] Boston is, do not criticize Bush.  We’re not going to have anything like Ann Richards, talking about “born on third base, and thinks he hit a triple.”  None of that.  We’re going to be above the fray.  We’re not going to have any criticism of the incumbent president, whatsoever.

Then the Republican Party convention starts off with the most, biggest evisceration of John Kerry by his Senate colleague, Democrat Zell Miller of Georgia.  So the idea that somehow criticizing the other party at a convention — I have no idea why the Kerry people got this.  But let me tell you a true story — as opposed to the fake stories I’ve been telling you.  No.  (laughter) But I’ve worked for Jimmy Carter, and I remember — and Carter spoke at the 2004 Boston convention.  [01:11:00] And Carter was exercised over the Iraq War.  And wanted to deliver a very harsh critique of Bush’s war-making decisions.  Carter was speaking not in the real prime-time, but sort of fringe time, but still.  It was a former President of the United States.  And Jerry Rafshoon, who had been Communications Director for Carter, and was sort of operating as Carter’s emissary to the Kerry campaign, was told, “Please tell the President he has to tone down the Bush critiques.  We’re just not doing this.”  And Rafshoon said, and I remember Rafshoon telling me this, “President Carter would love to hear Senator Kerry tell him that personally.  But until President Carter hears that from Senator Kerry, there is going to be no changes in the speech whatsoever.”  [01:12:00] So actually, if you go back and look at the transcript of the 2004 Democratic convention, the toughest speech against Bush was probably given by Jimmy Carter.

But there was a whole series of John Kerry errors.  The biggest one was not drawing the right lesson from Howard Dean.  The right lesson from Howard Dean is, that Howard Dean proved that internet fundraising can do amazing things.  But what happened is, Kerry could not believe that once he became the de facto nominee, he, too, would hit a gusher of anti-Bush, small-donor Democratic fundraising.  So they planned the entire campaign on the [01:13:00] basis of, a, he accepted Federal money for the fall campaign. John Kerry did not understand the lesson of Howard Dean and internet fundraising.  That they were totally worried, on how they would pay for the campaign, between the point at which Kerry was the de facto nominee in March, and the Democratic convention.  Traditionally, this was the point where soft money would pay for everything.  But there was no more soft money, because of McCain-Feingold.  And therefore, Kerry was very frugal about spending anything.  It is one of the reasons, if I’m doing this from memory, why they were so slow to respond to the Swiftboat ads.  Because they didn’t borrow money, even though they could have, at that point, borrowed a lot of money legitimately, as many campaigns have.  But they were so totally afraid that they could never raise enough money [01:14:00].  And then the money started coming in like a gusher, from internet giving, in the summer of 2004, before the Democratic Convention, when Kerry can still accept small-donor gifts.  But by that point, they had made the decision to farm out the get-out-the-vote operation to independent 527 groups that had been formed by Democrats, to try to get around the McCain-Feingold limitations by using another wrinkle of the campaign law.  So there was — I think the group was ACT, Americans Coming Together.

And what that meant is that John Kerry was running one kind of campaign in Ohio.  But the actual getting-out-the-vote in Ohio was sub-contracted to these Democratic 527 [01:15:00] groups.  And they did what Democrats have always done in Ohio.  They focused on the seven urban counties, and they hit every turnout target, and exceeded their turnout targets.  There was only one problem.  The Bush campaign, confident of their money all the way through, was running an organic campaign, doing everything in-house.  And the Bush campaign also realized — and I remember having long talks, both before and after the campaign, with a guy named Rob [Peduchik?], who ran Bush Ohio 2004, that they were doing everything  in-house, which gave them — that meant that they knew exactly what was going on, and they quickly realized that if they could win a county 70-28, instead of 68-32, [01:16:00] you get more votes that way.  And therefore, Bush did better — while Kerry did better than expected in the seven urban counties of Ohio, Bush did better than expected in the rest of the state.  And that was enough to give George Bush a 119,000-vote margin, and the White House for four more years.

As long as we’ve gotten into this, we’ll go one step further.  Issue number one, the gay marriage initiative that was on the Ohio ballot.  First of all, you have to realized how unpopular [01:18:00] gay marriage was in 2004, as opposed to late 2013, when we’re having this conversation.  But the fact is, that if I’m — again, I’m doing this from memory, but I’m pretty sure I’m right [01:17:00] — Karl Rove was very nervous about getting anything into the mix in Ohio that would upset the status quo.  But Ken Blackwell, the Conservative Secretary of State, who was planning a gubernatorial campaign in 2006, was really militantly anti-gay marriage, and saw putting an initiative on the ballot, issue number one, as his ticket to the governorship in 2006.  Parenthetically, he ended up being very badly beaten by Ted Strickland, but I digress.

As a result, at the very last minute, just barely with enough petition signatures, Gay Marriage was on the ballot along with Kerry and Bush in November of 2004, in Ohio.  Now, I’ve gotten into many debates, and people have looked, by precinct, by precinct, and have argued whether or not this made a difference. [01:18:00] I think — by doing reporting at the time — I think the gay marriage initiative affected turnout in one important way.  Ministers are not allowed to organize for a candidate from the pulpit.  It would — a church can lose their non-profit tax status.  There is one exception to that.  Ministers can preach all they want on non-partisan ballot initiatives, like gay marriage.

Issue number one in Ohio allowed the creation — and I went to some of their meetings — of a consortium of about a couple of hundred conservative ministers from all denominations, from Catholics to some [01:19:00] AME Baptist churches.  In Cleveland, evangelical Protestant churches.  I mean, there was elaborate outrage, and ministerial coordination campaign, which is totally legal, because this was a non-partisan ballot initiative.  My own theory is, that raised turnout just enough, and maybe depressed a little of the Kerry black folk maybe by one percent in places like Cuyahoga County, that it was enough to give Bush the presidency.

I can’t prove this statistically, but everyone says,  “Well, gay marriage was unpopular; it didn’t really matter in other states.”  The only state where gay marriage mattered was the only state the ultimately mattered in 2004, which was Ohio.