Karl Rove -- The Architect [home]
photo of matthew dowd
interviews: matthew dowd
Presidential elections especially are always about values in a broad sense. They're not about issues ... and they're not about, specifically, personality.

... Take me back, in Texas politics, when Texas was Democratic and now is Republican. What happened?

A few things came to bear: one, sort of the natural growth of Texas in the late '70s and early '80s, because of the influx [of] people from other states who had a tendency to be Republican, have a little bit of money, more conservative. That in-migration changed the dynamics. It's when the suburbs around the major cities started to grow tremendously, around Austin, places like Williamson County; around Houston, Fort Bend County, Brazoria County, Montgomery County; places around Dallas, Plano, and then Fort Worth. So these sort of big-growth suburbs that happened in Texas began to push Texas more and more to a swing state, and less and less of a Democratic state.

But the other thing that happened, which is a national phenomenon, I think, too, is that there was beginning to be the loss of conservative Democrats around the country, especially in the South and in the West. And so you no longer had white candidates that were fairly conservative that ran in Democratic primaries that won. It became harder and harder and harder for conservative Democratic candidates to win Democratic primaries. And when more liberal candidates won, it became harder for them to win general elections. So those combination of events: the growth of the suburbs and the growth of more conservative [communities], and influx of people that were more Republican, as well as the loss of conservative Democrats.

And I think that began, or really started to be seen, in the late '70s and early '80s. And then, as incumbent Democratic officeholders no longer sought re-election or got beat, Texas sort of in that process of 15 to 20 years, by the end of that, became basically a Republican state. Can a Democrat win in this state? They can, but it's extremely difficult, and you basically have to be a pretty dominant presence, like [Lt. Gov. Bob] Bullock was. Bullock won a fairly big margin in 1994, but he basically didn't really have an opponent. Lloyd Bentsen could win because he was a conservative Democrat that never had primary opposition. But other statewide officials now, it's very difficult for them to win. Even moderates now in this state, moderate Democrats, it's very hard for them to win.

Will the growth of other populations, especially Hispanic and Latino populations, begin to move Texas back to a swing state? It may. I think it will, but it's probably going to take six to 10 years where Texas then becomes a state that becomes much more in play for the Democrats. But again, there's a problem there, which is Republicans are doing better and better among Latino populations, especially in this state, than compared to other states. So [that] combination of things is what I think really caused Texas to go from a conservative Democratic state to a Republican state.

Is it a case study, in effect, for what has happened across America?

I think Texas is an early sign of what was happening in the South. I mean, it happened in South Carolina. South Carolina was a dominant Democratic state, became a Republican state. But South Carolina didn't have the sort of influx of a lot of suburban growth that Texas did. It's what's happening in the Midwest now and in some other areas. It's why Wisconsin is now becoming less a Democratic stronghold and more of a swing, because of the suburban growth. Exurban growth now is a huge phenomenon that's going on -- Minnesota. So it's happening.

I think it's a sign of the conservative nature of this country politically, and I think as you have larger populations of conservative peoples in individual states, those states become much easier for Republicans to win, just like as you have larger populations of more liberal or liberal moderate voters, it becomes much harder for Republicans to win. The growth of more liberal moderate voters in New York and in California makes it harder for Republicans to win those states, which used to be Republican states by and large. If you won the presidency, you usually won California. You now win the presidency, and you don't carry California. So yeah, it's a study in that it has a few differences, as I said. But it's what's happened in the South and what's happening in the Midwest now.

A former Democratic consultant, Matthew Dowd was the chief campaign strategist for Bush-Cheney 2004 and director of polling and media planning for Bush-Cheney 2000. Here, he describes how, even as the Florida recount was progressing, he and Karl Rove were already thinking about a re-election campaign in the event that Bush won. Dowd tells FRONTLINE that while most of the resources in the 2000 campaign were devoted to trying to win over independents, his post-election analysis showed that only 6 to 7 percent of the electorate was truly "persuadable." "You obviously had to do fairly well among the 6 or 7 [percent]," he says, "but you could lose the 6 or 7 percent and win the election, which was fairly revolutionary, because everybody up until that time had said 'Swing voters, swing voters, swing voters…'" This analysis, which was tested in the 2002 midterm election, formed the basis for the 2004 campaign's decision, known as the "base strategy," to focus on delivering votes from reliable Republicans. In this interview, Dowd recounts details the campaign learned about Republican voters -- from which magazines they read to which television shows they watch -- and talks about how he immediately knew that the early 2004 exit polls, which showed John Kerry winning, were wrong. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Jan. 4, 2005.

How much of the shift was driven by somebody like Karl Rove? You hear sort of Svengali-like intimations about strategies and policies and metrics, etc. And how much of it was other things?

Well, Karl is obviously a very, very, very bright strategist, has been a bright Republican strategist for 30 years. I knew Karl. Karl and I used to co-teach some classes together when I was a Democrat. We'd sort of do a Democratic/Republican thing. He and I got to know each other fairly well in that time, and he was a big reason why, besides my fondness for the governor, that I went over and became a Republican, basically a Bush Republican, in that time.

I think there was a combination of things. Karl was very smart, knew how to organize campaigns, knew what to do; and at the same time, this natural, or this emerging state was happening. You couldn't have a bright, very smart strategist that made a state into something it's not. ... Karl was there, I think, and because he was smart, and again, as I said, knew how to run campaigns, and knew what to do, was able to get some people elected maybe a little sooner than normal. The state didn't change because of Karl. The state was changing, and then Karl was able to take advantage of those changing dynamics.

... Take me on the road to the White House with Rove, Bush, Dowd, et al.

I was sort of later in the process than, obviously, Karl in the governor's discussions, though I know they had discussions in '98 prior to the election. I mean, one of the thoughts that they had, that if he was going to run -- which he had not made up his mind; he did not make up his mind until '99 that he was going to do that -- that having a big victory in Texas, and doing well with Latino populations, and doing well with African Americans, and doing well with Democrats in certain parts of the state, would send a signal that he was a candidate that needed to be dealt with, and that it would be easier to sort of present himself nationally having won a big race for re-election. So I think that was sort of the first marker, which was winning that nearly 70 percent victory in Texas in '98.

Then, in the aftermath of that, obviously the governor allowed Karl to start putting out feelers, talking to people, before he had actually sort of formally made up his mind. And Karl reached out to various Republican establishment folks and RNC [Republican National Committee] members and other elected officials in other states who had a big interest in Gov. Bush, governor of Texas, the second largest state in the country, and the son of a president, carrying the Republican banner in 2000, and then obviously people -- Don Evans and others -- about sort of exploring how he could raise the money that he might need to raise in this race, in this primary race. There was always a belief that we were going to have a very intense primary in that process early on, so [there was] the need to raise money early and build support.

But we also knew that in all likelihood, the governor would be the front-runner, and he was. Do any polls in the country, and whether or not they thought it was the father or the son, he would always poll better than anybody else, no matter who was running, Elizabeth Dole or whoever was running. We knew that, and we sort of planned for that. We knew that the first big thing was going to be the Iowa straw poll, to sort of demonstrate his ability to get grassroots Republicans in Iowa in the summer of '99, which became a big part of narrowing the field. Obviously we didn't forecast that McCain would be our primary opponent, our main opponent. That ended up happening because of his victory in New Hampshire. But those were the sort of initial plans -- raising money, building grassroots support around the country.

And then he obviously had a lot of exploratory discussions with the media, you know, building relationships, because he had a very good relationship with Texas media, but he didn't always know all the different players around the country, of who would cover Iowa or who would cover New Hampshire, who would nationally cover the race. And so that was a process in '99 that began in earnest. But it's raising money and building the grassroots [that] was the initial six or eight months of the process.

And your job at the time and throughout the process was to what, kind of parse the electorate and say, "Here's where we look strong; here's where we've got to go to war"?

Initially my part of the process was, I was going to be partners with Mark McKinnon, who was the media adviser. And we were going to partner and form Maverick Media, which we did, because Karl knew Mark was very creative, but he also wanted somebody that could sort of analyze, do the media buys and then obviously do all the targeting -- who are our voter groups? What do we need to do? -- and then work with research firms about, what do we need to do in a state to win a state in both the primary and the general election?

I was focused a lot on the general election in both races early on, because obviously I'd been a Democrat for a long time, so they're not going to send me somewhere to recruit Republicans. So I always had in the back of my mind, or at least the back of my mind, on the front of my mind, how we were going to win the general election if we were going to win the primaries? What states would be in play, what states would we think would be on the table in 2000, as well as this partnership with Mark and the media firm.

After the primaries were over, Karl asked me to join the campaign and run all the research and oversee all the media targeting and all that, which I did on the campaign. I was a very close confidant of Karl's. He'd bounce off whatever ideas he had to see what I thought of them from a strategic standpoint. And then obviously we won the race. The race was over. I was the first one in that process to start thinking about, in sync with Karl, what would we do in a re-elect right after 2000. Right after the 2000 race, I began to sort of put together memos and stuff of how we'd win a re-elect as an incumbent president.

How soon after?

During the process, I was already doing memos about the changing shape of the electorate as reflected in 2000 during the count in Florida. So it was before we actually even got the victory, I was starting to think about how the race would be different in 2004 than it was in 2000. So it was fairly quickly. The president obviously had not made up his mind -- he wasn't president yet, hadn't even been inaugurated yet -- but had not made up his mind about whether he was going to seek re-election until late 2002 or early 2003. And so there was a lot of obviously brainstorming things with Karl.

And then I did this really neat project, where I went a lot to presidential libraries, to the Reagan Library in summer of 2002, Ford Library, the Baker Institute at Rice University and the Bush Library in College Station, and researched how people handled re-elects, for good or for bad, and put together a long memo in a binder in the summer and early fall of 2002 about how we would deal with an incumbent president having the White House and what you might have to do differently. So we were planning fairly soon and fairly often. My interim time ... before I went back up to Washington in August 2003 to be strategist on the campaign was [spent] thinking about this race and what we would do in a re-elect over the course of those two years.

Let me go back to 2000 for just a minute. ... Where did this idea of a base strategy come from? And was it as revolutionary then as it was reported as being when we all look back? When did you first hear about it? Is it your idea?

Well, it's interesting. Obviously, as you looked at 2000, approached 2000, motivating Republicans was important, but most of our resources [were] put into persuading independents in 2000. One of the first things I looked at after 2000 was what was the real Republican vote and what was the real Democratic vote, not just who said they were Republicans and Democrats, but independents, how they really voted, whether or not they voted straight ticket or not. And I took a look at that in 2000, and then I took a look at it, what it was over the last five elections or six elections.

And what came from that analysis was a graph that I obviously gave Karl, which showed that independents or persuadable voters in the last 20 years had gone from 22 percent of the electorate to 7 percent of the electorate in 2000. And so 93 percent of the electorate in 2000, and what we anticipated, 93 or 94 in 2004, just looking forward and forecasting, was going to be already decided either for us or against us. You obviously had to do fairly well among the 6 or 7 [percent], but you could lose the 6 or 7 percent and win the election, which was fairly revolutionary, because everybody up until that time had said, "Swing voters, swing voters, swing voters, swing voters, swing voters."

And so when that graph and that first strategic imperative began to drive how we would think about 2004, nobody had ever approached an election that I've looked at over the last 50 years, where base motivation was important as swing, which is how we approached it. We didn't say, "Base motivation is what we're going to do, and that's all we're doing." We said, "Both are important, but we shouldn't be putting 80 percent of our resources into persuasion and 20 percent into base motivation," which is basically what had been happening up until that point, because of -- look at this graph. Look at the history. Look what's happened in this country. And obviously that decision influenced everything that we did. It influenced how we targeted mail, how we targeted phones, how we targeted media, how we traveled, the travel that the president and the vice president did to certain areas, how we did organization, where we had staff. All of that was based off of that, and ultimately, thank goodness, it was the right decision.

This is the mobilization and motivation strategy.

Yup. Our goal was to say that we wanted the same number of Republicans on Election Day as Democrats, and if we saw that we had the same number of people that said they were Republicans on Election Day as Democrats, we were going to win the election, no matter what happened among the small group of persuadable voters. We couldn't get overwhelmingly beaten by them, which obviously you have a message and a strategy to deal with that. But that was our goal, and no presidential election, no Republican had ever been able to do that. And that happened on Election Day, the same number of Republican voters as Democrats on Election Day, first time ever.

Going back to 2000, when the DUI thing happens, a week to go, you're studying the electorate. You know about it. How important did it seem to you at that moment?

It seemed fairly important. ... We were sort of sitting on a razor's edge, because this was an election we probably shouldn't have won. The country felt everything was good. It was the right direction. President Clinton's job approvals were very good -- 60, 59 percent. And normally the incumbent party doesn't lose in that environment. And so the fact that we were able to get it competitive was always something that we thought was a huge benefit for us.

But we also thought that anything could sort of tip this thing. Any sort of news could tip it, because people already knew they liked the incumbent party, but they had to stay with us. Even though they liked the status quo, they had to vote for change, which is a difficult spot to be in. ...

So when the DUI happened, which I didn't know about until the news broke -- I know there's a few people that knew about it that were close to the then-governor, in his world; one or two or three people knew about it. I learned about it when the news hit. Dan Bartlett came and told me that he'd just gotten a phone call and this news had broken. I think it was at 4:00 on Thursday. We were up at that point about 3 or 4 percent in our polls. I didn't know what impact it would have, but I knew it would have some impact. And what I think the ultimate impact -- it's hard to tell, hard to say, pinpoint one or pinpoint the other. Naturally, closing of the race. But the race went from a three- or four-point lead for us in our polls on Thursday to dead even on Tuesday.

You can't say it's all the DUI. I think the DUI had something to do with that. I think it demotivated some supporters of the president going into Election Day. But I also think there was this other thing, which was people were satisfied with the direction of the country, and they naturally were turned home. Even though they might not have liked Al Gore, they sort of naturally returned to the incumbent party. The combination of those things made this race a dead-even race.

Because Karl Rove, I read, said: "The religious base stayed home. That piece of our base stayed home. The DUI made them kind of uneasy. ... That's not going to happen next time," or whatever.

Maybe the DUI had something to do with that. There was also structurally that the campaign had not put enough resources into motivating and turning out those folks. Some of that was done. But what we learned in the aftermath of 2000, some things we did right and some things we did wrong. And one of the things we did wrong was not have enough person-to-person contact and on-the-ground staff and people to motivate folks. It wasn't just a broad, national message. It was people to talk to people in their neighborhoods. And there was a concerted effort to analyze that, this whole 72-Hour Task Force that we put together to figure out what we did right and wrong on turnout. And that's one of the things that we discovered that we tried to fix in 2004.

When you say 72-Hour Task Force, or when others refer to it, define that for me. Where does the name come from?

[The] 72-Hour Task Force is defined by, what are we going to do in the final three days to turn out Republicans? So three times 24, 72 hours. The final three days [before the] election, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, what are we going to do to motivate and turn out Bush supporters or Republicans on Election Day? And the 72-Hour Task Force was both a look backward -- which was what did we do right, what did we do wrong, what things worked, what things didn't work in 2000 -- and then it looked forward at what things can we test in 2002 to see if we did it differently if we can affect turnout or affect how this election is going to turn out. We did a lot of that testing in 2002 that we then put much more resources in 2004.

And the way the story goes, 2002 was this miraculous, historic event that has an incumbent president in the first midterm actually gaining some ground. Is that the way you read the tea leaves?

Yeah. I mean, it was historic. Part of the thing is that the president's job approval was fairly good, because we were still in the aftermath of 9/11 and the outcome of that. So he was going to do well anyway because of the position he was in with the public. The public liked him. They thought he did a good job handling the problems and the situations surrounding 9/11. So an incumbent with that kind of job approval going into Election Day is going to do fairly well anyway.

But we were able to win some close races that we probably wouldn't have won unless we had learned from what we had learned in 2000 through the 72-Hour Task Force and done some things. I mean, we put a lot of stuff in place in Georgia, where we had some surprising victories in the Senate and the governor's race. We put some stuff in place in Minnesota, where [former Vice President Walter] Mondale was supposed to win and ended up losing to Sen. [Norm] Coleman. Missouri. So there were some spots that we did some stuff that I think we pulled some races out. We had good candidates, but also, we had such good tactics. But having a president with a 60 percent, 59 percent job approval helps.

What were the tactics specifically?

Much more person-on-person contact in individual communities. So much more building it up, having an infrastructure where somebody could call into a neighborhood or precinct, to call up voters that they knew. A different kind of mail. There would have been a lot in the past that the mail was not as emotional as it should have been, so the mail was more emotional. More actual, real phone calls, as opposed to what they call robo-phone calls, which are sort of robotic phone calls where you say, "Go vote, go vote." These were more people in a community that might know a list of 100 people that they could call -- things like that.

We did much more radio, which we learned in the process was a much better way to reach a lot of our voters, in combination with the TV, which we did in 2004. Biggest anybody has ever done since the advent of television was how much radio we did.

Why the radio?

One thing we learned in a lot of the research that we did after 2000 was Republicans have a tendency to underperform on broadcast television. They watch less of it. If you just bought commercials or had the president appear just on broadcast media, Democrats have an advantage on that. They hit about 15 percent more of their voters than we do if both of us just did broadcast. How do you overcome that? What we learned from our research was cable and radio. And if you are active and really put your resources into radio and cable, you have more Republican listeners and watchers on those. You can overcome that gap and actually have a gap over the Democrats on it. So you are actually reaching more Republicans than they are Democrats. But we have to do it in three different mediums. They probably only have to do it in one, though I think they probably have learned from this election that relying on their sort of tactics that they won with in '92 and '96 is, in this world environment, makes it hard for them to win election.

Is it a new kind of message that you sell in this more untraditional or nontraditional --

It's actually not a new kind of message. It's the same message. It's just reaching people that you might not be able to get to. So if the president talks about what he wants to do in the war on terror, he might do it on a broadcast medium, but he also can convey that on the radio or convey that on cable. And so it's not a different message. It's just a better, more efficient way and effective way to reach people with that message.

Sounds like if I own a television station, I shouldn't count on income from --

Well, no, you still have to -- it's interesting. We still put 70 percent of our resources in broadcast, because there are just too many people out there that it's hard to reach. You can't just reach them with radio and cable. There's not enough people. But in 2004, we spent 30 percent on radio and cable; in 2000, we spent 5. So it was a pretty big difference.

This idea of targeting, identifying, electrifying the electorate -- help me with the specifics of the process. How do you know who is a Republican voter who's likely to vote for George W. Bush in 2004?

Well, there are some natural constituencies, obviously, for Republicans, and there are some natural constituencies for the Democrats, though it's different than what it was. People used to sort of divide it by income, and it was like, lower-middle-class, poor people were Democrats; upper-middle-class, rich people were Republicans. That's sort of gone. Income discrepancies -- you could be a wealthy Democrat as easily as you could be a wealthy Republican today, or you could be a lower-middle-class Democrat as [easily as] you could be a lower-middle-class Republican.

People that go to church frequently are 80 percent Republican. People that don't go to church at all are 80 percent Democrat. That's a new phenomenon that's emerged in the last 20 years, that frequent churchgoers now are naturally Republican voters. So that's a constituency. Rural voters now have more of a tendency to be Republicans, and small-town voters, regardless of income level, have a tendency to be more Republican voters. Urban-centered voters are more Democratic voters. Suburban voters are probably the true swing voters.

We did a fairly sophisticated analysis of what magazines people read or what kind of cars they own or where they live, a combination of what issues they're interested in. If somebody thinks that the war on terror is paramount and it's very important, they're more likely to be a Republican these days than a Democrat. If somebody is against the war in Iraq, they're more likely to be a Democrat these days than they are a Republican. So both with where people stand on issues today, which you could find out fairly easy [through] polling and research, and also their social or household habits will tell you a lot. If somebody gets Field and Stream, they're much more likely to be a Republican voter than a Democratic voter. If somebody gets Mother Jones, they're much more likely to be a Democratic voter, or Rolling Stone, for example, they're much more likely to be a Democratic voter.

And then that goes to what shows they watch. Somebody that watches CSI is much more likely to be a Republican. Somebody that watches a soap during the day is much more likely to be a Democrat. All of these things aren't completely 100 percent true, but when you go through it all and you factor it all out, you can find Republicans fairly quickly that way. That had never been done before. In the past, it was always, "Let's go find precincts that were Republican precincts, and let's turn out as many people in those precincts as possible."

Well, what we learned early on in 2001 and 2002, through some analysis, was that 85 percent of Republican voters don't live in Republican precincts, which makes it a much different way that you turn out. It's not just calling and going to Republican precincts. It means there's a whole bunch of Republicans that live in traditionally Democratic precincts around this country, and the only way to find them is individual profiles or calling or doing all that sort of things, which is what we did, especially in the 17 or 18 target states. We obviously knew this was an electoral campaign. We didn't spend a lot of resources in Texas or other states that we knew were going to vote for Kerry or vote for Bush. It was concentrating. So we did a lot of this analysis and activity of the 17 or 18 target states.

Religion is an interesting question. Somebody I talked to said: "Unbelievable, the idea that we didn't need to go to Moral Majority, we didn't need to go through a filter, a religious leader, to motivate that piece of our base that was, really for the first time ever, a group of affiliated [people] in a kind of generic sense, but not in a specific sense, built-in group ... ." Talk about that for me.

Well, in the past, some of the activity that was successful in the early '90s and late '80s, it was done either through the Moral Majority or the Christian Coalition. Those basically are gone, for all intents and purposes. And so after '94 -- there was success for the Christian Coalition I think in '94, and the Gingrich revolution and all that -- they sort of disbanded, or they weren't structurally organized. And so the Republican Party, and then-Gov. Bush and then-President Bush, was left without an organization to be able to rely upon and go to and communicate with.

And so what you have to do in that is build it yourself, which is what happened. There was some done in 2000, but much more was done between 2000 and 2004. And that is things like getting lists of people in communities that are active in churches or are active in the community, that are more conservative, that you can then call and get involved in the campaign, recruiting volunteers in various communities and places around the country. The campaign ended up with something like 1.6 million volunteers around the country, most of which were in the battleground states. Nobody's ever had that before. We had more volunteers and more precinct organizers than most governors or Senate candidates [have], at a presidential level.

And so it was built up. It was centered around the president primarily. Though these people have a tendency to be more Republican, they were brought into the process and became enthusiastic about the process because of the president, because of having watched his faith, watched how he performed in office, liked what he did on various issues, especially the war on terror. A lot of people have talked about that, well, this was a campaign or a constituency driven by certain social issues. That's actually not true. They are very interested in those issues. The primary motivator of these folks of turning out on Election Day was the support of the president in the war on terror. That was the biggest motivator of these folks on Election Day. Now, was gay marriage important? Yeah, it's important to them. Is abortion important? It's important to them. But that's not what caused people to turn out on Election Day. What caused them to turn out on Election Day was the president's performance in the war on terror.

Take [an issue like] tort reform … how important is it? Important enough that it really, really matters, or is it part of a stew of other things?

Elections are always about values. Presidential elections especially are always about values in a broad sense. They're not about issues ... and they're not about, specifically, personality. People always argue, "Well, it was his personality; it was these issues." What those are are indicators for somebody's values. And so what somebody's stand is on tort reform or what he wants to do about lawsuits or what he wants to do in the war on terror, what he wants to do about gay marriage, what he wants to do about various issues, tells something to people about what kind of values this person has. Are they like him? Do[es he] understand what they're going through? Is this person strong? Is he weak? Does this person care about me?

And then personality does the same thing. Is this person warm? Those personality characteristics and your issue stands give people an indicator of your value, which they then vote on.

That's why I think tort reform, just like a lot of other issues, is helpful to people. Does this person sort of understand what it means to a small business to have lawsuits, or what does it mean to a doctor in a community that we don't have any more obstetricians because of the lawsuits in suburban Philadelphia or whatever? It's not completely important, though it does tell you something about a candidate, does tell you something about the officeholder, where their stand is on those issues. ...

We understood that, and I don't know if the Democrats always -- the Democrats have a tendency to want to debate an issue without making it a value, which is what voters care about ultimately, the value that it conveys. And you have to have issue debates, but it's really only important as what it tells you about your values.

Where are you Election Day 2004?

... The president called me in the morning before I think he voted and asked me what I thought was going to happen on Election Day. I told him I thought he'd win by three points on Election Day. That was my best guess. I'd actually said that to some people, folks in the media, the week before; that from what I'd looked at, and if we did our turnout stuff right, we'd win this election by around three percentage points. He was hoping, as he said, for a five-point victory, and I told him I didn't think that was going to happen, but, you know, I'd sure hope. I liked his optimism.

And so that was always my mind-set. And I'd looked at all the polls, public polls and all our polls. We did a lot of polling, a lot of public polls. And that's what on Election Day I'd sort of anticipated. I thought maybe the exits would show it close, because that can happen. And so when those first exits came, we got them I think around 1:30 or so on Election Day. And I e-mailed them to Karl, and then I talked to him on the phone. I was befuddled, completely befuddled, because they first showed us losing to John Kerry nationally by three points, and then losing in places like, we were losing Virginia; South Carolina was tied; we were losing Pennsylvania by 18; we were losing Florida; we were losing Ohio.

And so one of two things -- and I told this to Karl on the phone; he was on Air Force One -- that I thought: either that we fundamentally misunderstood what was going on in the electorate, and just what we'd counted on and turnout and all that wasn't going to happen, or these were completely screwed up. And I told him I thought they were completely screwed up. It's like this book, The Wisdom of Crowds. You can't have 99 polls that say or 99 pieces of data that say one thing, and then all of a sudden what comes back is different. Your assumption should be that what came back was wrong, and there must be something wrong with it.

And we didn't really know that. I was sort of counting on that. But you're not going to know that -- and I told this to Karl -- until election results start coming in which, the first election results we got, I think, [were] at 6:30, when the polls in Kentucky closed.

That's a long wait. That's, like, five hours.

Yeah. So there was a lot of speculation, a lot of concern. I mean, I think people were relying upon the fact that some of us were saying they were wrong. But exits are usually never that wrong. They've been wrong, but never usually that wrong. But as soon as the election results started coming in, I started comparing the election results to the poll numbers. And that's what happened. What happened was, through some systematic problem or something, the exits were all wrong, and the actual results coming back [were] what we anticipated. So we'd get these results back. They were exactly what our goals were, what we anticipated in individual counties, individual precincts.

And I went and told [Bush-Cheney campaign communications director] Nicolle Devenish, called Dan Bartlett and told him somebody needs to tell the media, because the way they convey it, even though they don't report the exit polls, their tone and their manner throughout the day was that we had lost. … One of the unfortunate things of exit polls is it affects coverage. And even though they don't tell you who won or lost, you could see it in how the words they use and the manner which they convey. And so I told Nicolle and Dan, "Somebody needs to go down there and tell the media that we're learning that the exits are wrong, and that this could be a long night, but it looks like the numbers are coming in the way we want."

Well, of course, Nicolle tells me I have to go do it, so I go down on the first floor where all the media was. It was 40 or 50 of them covering the campaign. And I went in and told them that. And of course there's a first initial disbelief, because they always think, campaign spin, this is spin, which I always try to tell them, "Listen, I'm not going to tell you something that's wrong, I just won't tell you anything." I mean, it turned out to be true. As each state came in, it matched our inclinations and what we had told the media before. We'd told the media that we thought we'd win Florida by four or five. We thought Ohio was close. We thought we'd carry a lot of states strongly. We thought Pennsylvania would be close. And as all these states came in, they matched our forecast as opposed to the exits' forecast. But it was a long five hours until those first numbers started coming in. …

What really is the state of play now? Where do we really stand in America, Democrats and Republicans?

The honest answer, I think, is that we don't know yet, because you had an election that was dead even in 2000; you had an election in 2002 where we won a lot of close races; and then you have an election that we won by 2.7 percent, 2.8 percent in 2004, with some huge turnouts and all that. And so I don't think we know the answer to that. I don't think the Democrats have been marginalized yet, though I do think that they have been put in a position where they can't compete with important constituencies right now. They can't compete with people that really care about certain values in this country, so it makes it very difficult for them to carry certain states or certain districts. And so I think they are in a more difficult spot.

I think a bigger part of their difficulty is they have no organizing principle right now, and that is, they have no person to organize around. They haven't had this since Clinton left the presidency. Their entire organizing principle for the last four years has been anti, meaning it's all been against the president. It hasn't been for somebody. It hasn't been: "We love this person. This person is the leader of the Democratic Party. We care about him." It was all: "We don't like Bush. Let's get him out of office." And they don't have a set of policies that people, average voters, in their minds say: "This is what the Democrats stand for. This is what they stand for in foreign policy. This is what they stand for in the war on terror. This is what they stand for on the changing economy."

And so without a person and without a set of policies, that puts them in a difficult spot, because they have to solve, I think, both of those problems before they can really start winning elections. Can they? Yeah. They can, because this country is very, very close, very, very tight. It's still a country [where] Democrats do very, very well in urban areas and can compete in suburban areas, and are having a more difficult time in exurban and rural areas.

The way I look at it is, it's like a basketball game that's close. We have a slight lead, and the possession arrow is in our favor. But that doesn't mean that you can't lose the game, and that doesn't mean there's still a lot of time left for the Democrats to find a person, find somebody to organize around and find a set of policies that the public will support. ...

[What are Republicans worried about?]

You know, for me, being Irish, I worry about everything. I always do. You do everything right, basically, and you have a candidate that has led this country in the war on terror, and you win by 2.7 percent. ... So this isn't Ronald Reagan, win by 19, 20 points in 1984. I much prefer our position than the Democratic position, but we're in no way a party that just will win elections no matter what. And so we're going to have to have good candidates. We're going to have to continue to upgrade technology and strategy. In this election, we learned that just relying on strategy from 10 years ago was old, and relying on strategies from 2004 in 2014 will be old. And so I think you have to upgrade that. You have to have candidate recruitment. You have to have constant policies, because ultimately people care about policies and how it affects their daily life that adapt to the changing environment.

The good news for the Republicans is that the people have a sense of what they want to do on the war on terror. They at least know they like tax cuts. They at least know they want to have something that helps business grow and foster. But there are a whole wealth of other issues: What's going on with trade and how it affects people's jobs and what you can do about that will be a constant issue that's going to have to be dealt with. The cost of health care, both parties are going to have to come up with something to do with that in a really serious way.

So a tight election that we won closely and that we hold the Senate, we hold the Congress and we hold the presidency is a good place to be. But you don't hold them by huge amounts. And if your policies go awry and you have the wrong candidates, you could easily lose those elections.

How important, when you watched the electorate, was the 527, kind of the Swift Boat thing in August coming out of the Democratic convention? And then "Ashley's Story" sparked the movement that was happening in Ohio. Do you attribute much to that?

Campaigns, presidential campaigns, are always long dialogues, [and] all the chapters build to a conclusion. And so no one spot sort of changed the nature of the election. I know there's a lot of consultants out there that say that we had the spot, and this is what did it. The public's not like that. It's a building dialogue or a long story that you then get the conclusion on Nov. 2.

I think the Swift Boat ads were part of that dialogue, but it was more important in that they pointed out something about John Kerry, which is, all this guy's talking about is his Vietnam record. What does that have to do with the war on terror? What does that have to do with my job getting lost? What does that have to do with the price of health care? I think voters at some point in time got sick of all the talk about Vietnam, and they centered that on John Kerry, because he was the one standing up with veterans behind him, saying, "Elect me because I served in Vietnam." That, I think, was the importance of the Swift Boat, not the allegations they raised, but the fact that they raised an issue that John Kerry was raising himself. And ultimately, whether you were for the Swift Boats or for John Kerry, it was like, why are we talking about this issue? This is 30 years ago. Let's talk about what matters today.

"Ashley's Story" was another like that, was a spot that highlighted some things about the president that they got to know about him -- that he was sensitive, he was emotional about people's lives, what happened to them, sending soldiers, and the things he did affected him as much as it affected the country. People saw that in the aftermath of 9/11. He teared up a number of times. His voice cracked. And I think the story of Ashley was a reminder [to] folks of who the president was…

None of them were determinative of the election. They were all sort of part of a long story that culminated on Election Day, with a lot of things that affected it. ...

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posted april 12, 2005

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