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Week of 1.4.08

Web-Extended Interview: Rod Shealy

Rod Shealy Rod Shealy has worked in South Carolina as a campaign strategist for the past 30 years. He ran South Carolina campaigns for both Bob Dole and Elizabeth Dole and was once convicted and fined for violating campaign laws. He now claims to be a reformed "bad boy."

The following is an extended, edited version of our broadcast interview.

BRANCACCIO: Let's talk about another aspect of politics here in South Carolina. The reputation here [in South Carolina] is that campaigns are dirtier than most. What's your sense of that?

SHEALY: There's the McCain-Bush election in 2000, which certainly had the reputation of a down-and-dirty race. I don't think there's any question that there were some very negative tactics that went on during that race.

BRANCACCIO: There were rumors that floated about John McCain, for instance, that he had fathered an illegitimate child by a black woman and so forth. There was no truth to that, but it may have done some political damage to his campaign.

SHEALY: Yes, in South Carolina we have the reputation of running negative campaigns, and we know how to run negative campaigns; I myself have been called a reformed "bad boy" because I once was a major proponent of negative campaigns. I now prefer to use what I called "counter-negative-organizational-based campaign."

I've been engaged in my share of negative campaigns over the years. But, not lately. I'm too old to keep up anymore.

There are a few factors at play here.

The master of politics in this state was Lee Atwater who was the first George Bush's campaign manager. He went on to become chairman of the RNC. And Atwater was known as a hard-nosed political operative. He knew how to run an attack-based campaign.

BRANCACCIO: You worked with him—

SHEALY: I worked with Atwater back in the early '70s, and I learned an awful lot from him. He was a genius. He was one-of-a-kind. But almost every political operative in this state directly or indirectly has worked with Atwater.

And so his style of politics is still around, although he hasn't been around for a lot of years. So we are very capable of running a strong attack-based campaign. But I don't know that we're any more capable than a lot of other states.

South Carolina is a "do-or-die" state. South Carolina is a do-or-die state. If you're running for the Republican nomination, it is well known that you better win South Carolina to continue to have the momentum that you need to become the president of the United States.

So when you're limping out of Iowa or New Hampshire, and you head to South Carolina, you pull out all the stops. It's not just us here in South Carolina, it is the national campaigns and the candidates. They know that they have a window of whatever it is, one week, to fix what ever is wrong. And whatever it takes to win, they're going to do it. We're talking about the presidency of the United States. And I think they're all the same.

After investing years of their life and personal fortunes and everything else, they're ready to do whatever it takes to try to win this state to become the president.

BRANCACCIO: When you ask candidates and voters this question, they all say, "I want campaigns to be more positive. I don't want to just be hurling mud." But you're saying that sometimes there comes a moment in the history of the campaign where you can't worry so much about just being positive.

SHEALY: Every campaign starts off with the ideals of being positive, and some campaigns do succeed in making it through. A lot of it is fed, frankly, by the news media. There's an old saying in the newspaper business, "If it bleeds, it leads."

People tune in to read bad news. People tune in to read controversy. And so you don't make the news if you're lobbing soft balls.

BRANCACCIO: We start with the fine ideals. But then you start to wake up to the fact that—

SHEALY: There's the definition of what is a negative campaign. Virtually all campaigns have a degree of negativity. If I stand on a platform and say, "I should be president because I'm for lower taxes," haven't I just, to some extent, suggested that my opponents are not for lower taxes, or at least not as much for lower taxes as I am?

Campaigns are comparative by nature. You're saying to the voters, "Here's why you should vote for me rather than my opponents." It's all about making comparisons. Comparisons become negative in the eyes of the voters or the media. But, to a great extent, they're simply comparisons. So it's a matter of where you draw the line.

Now I go by Atwater's rules. He said, "Anything that's a matter of public record is fair game." You know, he's famous for the Willie Horton ad against Dukakis. But using Atwater's rules, that was absolutely fair game because Michael Dukakis let Willie Horton out of jail and that was as governor. It was public red. It was fair game.

I try to stick to that. If it's the public performance of your duties and it's public record, it's fair game.

BRANCACCIO: I take you at your word when you say you're reformed now. And I want to talk about your new view of ways to run the campaign because you do have experience in running a campaign.

So you have a fellow running for president who just came off a not-so-great showing in Iowa or New Hampshire or both, and would like to win here, and you've made the point that just sort of talking about your positions in a positive way might not get you media coverage that you need to break through. Where do you start? Do you gather intelligence on the other guys, or what do you do?

SHEALY: Every major campaign engages in what we call opposition research. And they spend thousands and thousands of dollars. And if you're going to run for president, everything you have ever done in your life is going to be known by your opponents because these guys are extremely good. They know how to track down every shred of any kind of documentation that ever existed. They know how to go back to your childhood friends. And you know, your life is going to be an open book. You have to assume that if you're going to run for president. Frankly, if you're running for a lot of other offices now opposition research is just as extensive and they're going to know everything there is to know about you. So, yes, that's where you start. You start with researching and deciding what it is about the opponents that might cost him votes that you can then benefit from.

Opposition research is not really new. Here's what's changing now, with the emergence of the internet.

"I myself have been called a reformed "bad boy" because I once was a major proponent of negative campaigns. I now prefer to use what I called 'counter-negative-organizational-based campaign.'"
Your challenge as a campaign is to damage your opponent without getting caught doing it. And you want the information out there, but you don't want to dirty yourself by being the guy that did it. The Internet, with its anonymous blogs and fake websites and what have you is just going to open a new dimension, it already has, a new level of negative politics.

We already are seeing degrees of negativity that I would have never thought possible because, frankly, you can get away with it. It's anonymous. You can get it out there to millions of people overnight through all sorts of Internet-based sources. And the goal, of course, of all Internet rumors, forwarded e-mails and anonymous blogs, when they're engaged in negative politics, the goal is to get it out far enough that it eventually gets picked up by mainstream media and printed in the newspaper and reported on the evening news.

And then you've taken it from the blogosphere or the Internet to the mainstream. And it becomes a problem for the opponent.

BRANCACCIO: Now, Rod, you have a reputation of being not just clever, but I saw a quote that said you're "diabolically clever" at some of this stuff.

SHEALY: Huh. What does that mean, "Diabolically?"

BRANCACCIO: It might mean that you're extremely effective in your cleverness when helping with campaigns.

SHEALY: Well, in my younger years I was diabolically clever. Yes, I was. And, I would use a lot of the misdirection and a lot of the same tactics that I learned from Atwater. I probably do less of that now because, frankly, about ten years ago, I started working on a different tactic—"the organizationally based counter-negative"—where you go out of your way to remain positive. Frankly, I turned that into a major comparative advantage, and I found that it works better than the negative. In every case where you can implement the totally positive organizationally based counter-negative, it is more effective than the negative.

BRANCACCIO: So that I understand this better, it's not just that your candidate is looking like he or she is taking the high road, the positive road, but the surrogates are doing the negative stuff.

SHEALY: It's staying positive. And, frankly, this is a work-in-progress over the last ten years, redeveloping all the time. But you've got to be positioned to win with a positive campaign, which means first you have to go through the motions of building a good campaign organization.

You need a broad base. You have to run a solid campaign. Once you get that in place, you have the issues on your side and you're basically out performing, you wait on your opponent to go negative. You take the lead, which you almost always will, if you've got a good enough organization. Your opponent will go negative, and then you just point out the contrast to the voters.

"Look, we stayed positive. They're going negative." And, always without fail, the undecided voters break to the person that stayed positive.

BRANCACCIO: Well, that tactic undermines the idea that negative campaigning is so effective. You're saying that this more positive way to do it can win in the end?

SHEALY: If it's properly implemented, I believe this more positive way wins in the end. Now, I'm not going to say that negative campaigning is not efficient because, frankly, it is. If you spend enough time and money tearing down someone, it's very difficult for them to get elected.

"Your challenge as a campaign is to damage your opponent without getting caught doing it."
And, there comes a time when you get into this war of attrition, which you have no alternative, but to join. Because if "candidate B" is dead set on repeatedly attacking "candidate A," you have got to find a way to counteract that. But, in general, I have found that this counter-negative approach works extremely well.

BRANCACCIO: I'm hearing you. You have to have a good organization in place already. You can't show up with a sort of weak organization and just say, "I'm going to talk about issues."

SHEALY: Yeah. You have to have a solid, across-the-board campaign. You have to put yourself in a position to lead your opponent in the stretch, and basically force your opponent to find a way to catch up. The opponent almost invariably decides to go negative. And when he does, you've got him.

BRANCACCIO: Let's say you're running for something. And, the candidate who—

SHEALY: That's a scary, scary thought. But go ahead.

BRANCACCIO: [Let's say], after meeting you, I want to come down here and vote for you. But you're running for something and you're trying to take the positive route. You have a pretty good organization. But then your opponent starts dredging up stuff that might be true or might not be true. You shouldn't respond?

SHEALY: No, you almost always have to respond. But, the best response is proving your opponent is incorrect, if you can do it in such a way just to prove that the opponent is incorrect, rather than a pure counterattack. It's not always easy. I mean, it's difficult, which is why consultants have jobs.

BRANCACCIO: It's hard for the candidate, too. If they said something nasty about you, you do not just want to set the record straight, but you want to hit back.

SHEALY: You want to hit back. But it's the most difficult part of this entire modern political campaigning, is knowing when to hit back, how hard [to hit back], and what to say. That is a very difficult. It's sort of an art. You've got to have a feel for that.

BRANCACCIO: You can hit back too hard, and it can have—

SHEALY: Absolutely.

BRANCACCIO:—negative consequences?

SHEALY: Absolutely. A case in point is "Bush-McCain" in South Carolina. Bush took a shot at McCain. McCain hit back, and then withdrew his ad, and was immediately blasted for going negative. He responded to the negative [ad] just a little bit, and then they came down on him hard and they left him on the defensive while they got back in the offensive and continued to beat him up.

BRANCACCIO: I know it's in hindsight, but what would you have advised Mr. McCain? I mean, it was a scurrilous charge that was lodged against him.

SHEALY: He probably he should have refuted the charge, proved it incorrect, and then used the fact that the other campaign had been caught in something misleading as a wedge. Instead, he didn't necessarily refute it, and he launched his own attack, and was roundly criticized for going negative.

I think the attack ad lasted less than a day before they pulled it, but it was too late. You couldn't put it back in the bottle; He had gone negative. I think he came back the next day and apologized for going negative, which compounded it.

So in South Carolina, McCain's handling of the negative was exactly wrong. He compounded, and there was a week there, actually leading into election day, a lot of voters said, "Yeah, McCain shouldn't have gone negative." And, history, of course, records that it was probably exactly the opposite.

BRANCACCIO: Just so I understand, you talked about a negative campaign tactic, the general class of it being misdirection. What is that?

SHEALY: There are all sorts of misdirection. You know it's a classic tactic in any battle. And, you know, a political campaign is not entirely different than a military campaign.

It's a strategic move. Make the opponent believe you're coming from here when you're really coming from here. Or, make the voters believe this is happening when really this is happening. Misdirection is just a common strategic tactic.

BRANCACCIO: And, if it's applied as a negative campaign tactic, it's perhaps someone who is misrepresenting the position of the opposition?

SHEALY: Yes. You know, a misdirection is a tactic that I recall from 30 years ago when the campaigns used to go out and vandalize their own signs to create the impression that the opponents had vandalized it, to create a backfire. That's misdirection. It's an old tactic that wore out 20 years ago in this state, but that was an example of a misdirection tactic.

BRANCACCIO: That's actually pretty clever. Now, that I hear it, it's certainly easy to do.

SHEALY: It worked 20, 30 years ago when all of us did it.

BRANCACCIO: You must have seen the film or read the book All the President's Men. There's a young guy from University of Southern California, the other, dare I say, USC: Donald Sigretti. And he was working for, it turns out, President Nixon's reelection campaign, and engaged in, what do they call them—"Dirty tricks?" Have you ever seen that movie?

SHEALY: I've seen the movie. And, frankly, long before I saw the movie, when I knew the name, I used to hear Atwater tell tales of Sigretti.

I think my favorite is....and I'm not sure this actually happened or whether it was just a tale that was told.

But, allegedly, the Democrats had a $1,000-a- plate formal dinner. And somehow, Sigretti called the hotel and had the menu changed to pizza for the $1,000-a-plate dinner. And, you know, that's the kind of stuff that was actually kind of clever, you know?

BRANCACCIO: Antagonize some big donors. Take some of the passion out of their support. There has been a lot of talk in this election cycle of positive techniques to engage the electorate. And you see some of the candidates, including some Democrats trying to, for instance, reach out to voters in situations like beauty parlors and hair salons. Do you think that gets the job done?

SHEALY: It absolutely is a huge part of retail politics and getting out there. That's a very positive tactic. Anytime you're out there meeting voters, you're almost always engaged in a good positive campaign, and that's the way a campaign probably should be run.

And, yes, we are seeing more of that. We're seeing a lot of retail here in this state, a lot of what I call "visibility activities." One of my favorite tactics is what we call the early morning visibility activities where the candidate will specifically go visit a coffee shop or hairdresser or post office during the early morning hours (around 8:00 AM), knowing that the people he meets will go to work and tell everybody they see that day that they met so-and-so.

Whereas, if you'd done the same kind of activity at 6:00 at night, the people he met would go home and never tell a soul. And so the early morning visibility activities is one of my methods of a very positive tactic of getting your message out to a lot of people. We're seeing a lot of that this year with presidential campaigns.

BRANCACCIO: Isn't that just about photos opportunities? [For example], you go into a beauty parlor and someone takes a nice picture. But it really works, you think, at this different level?

SHEALY: I would say that the Democrats are doing a little better than the Republicans on this. But, in the case of the presidential campaigns, they have their troops and their armies of volunteers going out and doing the campaigning to the beauty parlors and the coffee shops.

That's an effective campaign tactic. The candidate, yes, the candidate shows up for the photo opportunity. The candidate cannot, running for president, go visit coffee shop after coffee shop after coffee shop, or beauty shop after beauty shop. [It] can't be done.

But if he does it a couple times, and then sends a e-mail out to his 100,000 supporters in the state, or in the nation, and they all spend the weekend, because they're urged to, visiting beauty shops and passing out materials, or going to coffee shops, or going to ballgames and events and holding up signs, that is a positive use of organization and a positive use of internet to make these things happen.

The internet actually has changed the way we can run organization-based campaigns. I know it sounds like I'm only saying that the Internet is bringing all these bad things, and certainly there are negatives that are going to be brought about by the internet. It's also a very, very useful tool to create an organizational based campaign because you have a way of communicating with your entire team instantaneously, all at once.

BRANCACCIO: I forgot to ask you about another negative tactic. We haven't talked about push polling. What's that all about?

SHEALY: Push polling is not really polling. It is calling a group of voters, or a group of donors, pretending tobe taking a poll, simply so you can impart negative information about an opponent. It usually goes like this:
"I'm calling... we're taking a poll for XYZ Associates. In the election for Congress, would you be more likely to vote for Smith or Jones?"

"The internet, with its anonymous blogs and fake websites, is just going to open a new dimension, a new level of negative politics....Voters should probably be very alert to and cautious of anything they see on the Internet."
If the respondent says, "Well, I'm for Smith," they come and say, "Would you still be likely to vote for Smith if you knew that he had a criminal record? Would you still be more likely to vote for Smith if you knew he beats his wife?" They're putting out true or untrue information, and very frequently it's untrue because essentially it's an illegal tactic, or at least an unethical tactic. If it's un-disclaimed, it's an illegal tactic. If you're goingto break the law, why not go ahead and lie while you're doing it? So, very frequently, the information that is imparted about the opponent is not even true.

BRANCACCIO: Do you think push polling works?

SHEALY: It has some impact. It makes some people believe it. It definitely can work.

BRANCACCIO: Is January the time when you start becoming quite alert for the more negative techniques to be unveiled?

SHEALY: I absolutely believe that during the final weeks, leading into this primary, you will see a lot of negative advertising. You'll see a lot of push polling, you'll see direct mail, you'll see all the negative tactics.

You'll see surrogates, attacking various opponents because, again, the candidates themselves want to keep their hands off. But as the field narrows, it will become more of "Bush versus McCain- South Carolina battle."

The more folks there are in the race, the less negativity there is, because you're battling just to be in that top tier. They're all battling for the top tier. But as soon as it narrows down to a very few, then you start trying to take out your opponent.

In the final few weeks of this campaign, you're going to see a lot of negative [campaigning]. You're going to see TV ads which are designed to diminish the reputation of an opponent or diminish the vote appeal of an opponent, versus just TV ads which are designed to prop up. I expect it.

I think we'll see that Internet which is more of a national thing is going to sink us to new lows. Watch for it during 2008, not just in the South Carolina primary but through November. It's going to happen. And voters should probably be very alert to and cautious of anything they see on the Internet.

BRANCACCIO: Yeah, you just get the blogger of your choice saying whatever, whether or not it's at all connected to the truth.

SHEALY: Right here in South Carolina now, every major consultant has their own little Web aggregator, a news source. They all have their little bloggers, and they're affiliated or are closely affiliated. And it's just automatic. If you need to put something out on an opponent, you've got your Web guys there. You've got a source.

Officially, they don't appear to be connected to the campaign or to the consultant, but they are. They are aligned. And that's going to be the new paradigm for a while until we figure out how to sort through it.

BRANCACCIO: Yeah, you don't have to get it into a mainstream newspaper. You can just have some tidbit, true orfalse, you probably have some allied bloggers that might be happy to stick this up for the whole world to see.

SHEALY: It's as easy as sending an e-mail to any one of a dozen bloggers. And the next morning, thousands and thousands of people have seen it, including most news reporters. Because news reporters read the blogs.

It plants the seed in the minds of a lot of news reporters because news reporters nowadays read the blogs. They look for news. They look for tidbits, and that's where they get it.And, so yes. We're going to see that. We are going to see a lot of negative news stories during the final few weeks.

BRANCACCIO: But the real magic could be if one of those news reporters sticks the tidbit into the mainstream media-

SHEALY: Mainstream is what they want because once it hits print, once it hits the nightly news some people will believe it. Not everybody, but some people.