Karl Rove -- The Architect [home]
photo of mark mckinnon
interviews: mark mckinnon
Karl was plowing the fields of Texas looking for candidates. He created a farm team. He went out and sought out and begged for candidates at a time when there really weren't any Republican candidates.

... You went through a kind of transformation. What happened?

Well, a couple of things happened. One is I just got older, and I think I just evolved, as we all do. But one thing that happened to me is that after practicing politics for a number of years is that I got really tired of this notion that people are right or wrong; it's black or white. I just began to see shades of gray. And it occurred to me that there were Republicans that were saying some things that were OK, that they weren't all evil. And there were some Democrats that didn't quite square and didn't add up. And so that sort of distorted my picture. I was a practitioner of the game, and I was used to sort of dividing into black and white, so I had a real epiphany about that. And I began to look around at people who were on the landscape.

And through this process, one of the things that occurred to me, in my development as a political consultant, is how important character is to a candidate. ... Character I saw as really an important characteristic for officeholders, because I had seen Democrats who sort of met an ideological litmus test but failed miserably in the character department. So when the important decisions came, they weren't necessarily making those decisions based on the right reasons. And so I saw over time, working with people like former [Houston] Mayor Bob Lanier, former [Texas] Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, people who ... were the sorts of people you'd look at and you'd say: "I may not agree with everything you say, but I know what you're saying; I know what you believe; I know where you're going, and I admire and respect you for that. You're predictable. You have a backbone. You believe in something."

So that shaped a lot of my thinking in the mid-'90s. But that was a point where I said "I've had enough, I'm getting out of this game. [I'm] burned out; I want to spend more time with my family." And so I did that. And I was quite happy out of politics.

And then what happened is that there was this new governor in Texas named Bush, who was a Republican. And because I'd been drinking the Democratic Kool-Aid for years working in those trenches, my predisposition was not to like him. And I tried very hard not to like him, because he was a Republican. …

But this Gov. Bush was doing some things that really got my attention. He was talking about education reform. He was talking about immigration reform. He was talking about issues that had typically been Democratic issues. He was talking about them in a really compassionate way. And this was so completely different than the old-style [House Speaker] Newt Gingrich politics that I had associated with the Republican Party, which was "Burn government down." George Bush was saying, "No, let's not burn it down; let's make sure there's an appropriate, limited role for government, but let's be proactive about this and make it work for us." That was something really different and really got my attention.

And so then, through an odd collision of circumstances and timing, I got to know him personally. We became friends, and he asked me to help him in his re-election in 1998 for governor, which I did after some period of discussion with my friends and family about my history. It was not an easy decision to make at the time. It was one I've never regretted for a second.

What tipped it for you?

Well, what tipped it for me was his humanity. And again, it was a character. When I first met the governor, our discussion was really framed -- I'm not surprised that he was a good politician; I was surprised at what a great human being he was, what he cared about. He talked about his family and priority in life. All the other politicians I've met before and worked for were trying to convince me about what great politicians they were. This guy was like: "Let's forget about politics -- how are your kids? What's going on in their lives?" It was just so different and refreshing.

And he was one step ahead of me on life's curve. He's got twin daughters, and I've got two daughters, and they were just a little older. He encountered some of those things that you deal with as a father and a parent that I was grappling with. He kind of helped me think through some of those things and I think most importantly impressed upon me that that should be a priority in my life, thinking about my kids.

And also, he knew that I would do this not because I was some local consultant wanting to put another trophy on the shelf. The president has a pretty healthy skepticism about political consultants in general. He doesn't like them as a breed. It's a pretty healthy attitude.

McKinnon was a media adviser for George W. Bush's 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns and 1998 gubernatorial campaign. Previously he worked as a Democratic consultant in Texas, for candidates including Governor Ann Richards, whom Bush defeated in 1994. In this interview, he describes his political transformation and what it was like to work on campaigns against Karl Rove. "My earliest memories of Rove was just [his] kicking my butt mercilessly over and over again," he says. McKinnon discusses how campaigns get their message out in a changing media landscape and recounts an incident from the 2004 campaign in which the Bush campaign targeted commercials in West Virginia, where they knew John Kerry was scheduled to speak, about his vote against the $87 billion appropriation for U.S. troops in Iraq. Those ads led to Kerry's receiving questions about the vote, which in turn led to his infamous statement, "I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it." "We were up at the campaign and we were watching it live, and we said, 'We got it,'" McKinnon recalls. "And we immediately recut the ad with that piece of his video in front of the veterans to close the ad and put it out." He talks about his favorite Bush campaign commercials, as well as the impact of the 527 political spots, including the Swift Boat ads and the commercial known as "Ashley's Story." "I remember the second I saw the Swift Boat ads … I was like, whoa, this is going to have a big impact," he says. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Jan. 4, 2005.

And I think that he understood that for me to engage in that campaign would cause me some difficulties and a little flak, and that was sort of a test for me to see whether I was going to walk those coals and take some shots. But as it is so often in the president's world, the fundamental ingredients of our relationship were really based upon friendship and loyalty [rather] than about money or consulting or professional engagement.

What's your favorite spot of that re-election campaign that really captures the essence of Bush, the governor? ... Was there a single spot that kind of captures it all for you?

Yeah, there is actually. It's a spot that we shot up outside of Dallas that was him on a couch, very relaxed in jeans and a cowboy shirt, kind of sun glow[ing] through the window. And it was him talking unscripted, just like we are, actually. And it was so natural and so from the heart that it was very compelling. Part of what people hate about politics is that it's so scripted, and so one of the things that we try and do as professionals, or I try and do anyway, is try and reflect any ounce of humanity, because I think humanity goes a long way. When people look at a candidate or a president and say, "That's a real person; there's a real person behind there," now you're getting somewhere, because people are used to politicians saying anything. But if you think in a sense the politician feels something, then you're making some progress I think, and you're beginning to cut through the filters that people put up. ...

If you look at most of the ads in the course of the president's history, the ones that are really compelling are ones where there's not a script. We caught some moment, some piece of conversation, some moment of reflection about his policies or the war in Iraq, and it's when he talks about those things from the heart that he's really convincing. So that was probably the first ad that we did that. And I recognized at that time, this is how this was very powerful and that this is the way that we should communicate the president's message.

Take me back a minute now into the Texas politics. ... Give me a kind of brief state of play from the '70s, '80s, '90s through the change to Republicanism.

Well, it's really a remarkable transformational period in politics as you look at it and how quickly it happened. That's what's amazing. And I've remarked before that the fact that it happened is not so surprising, that Texas went from Democrat to Republican. The fact that it happened so quickly is incredible. And this all happened in the space of 10 years or less, really.

In '92, every statewide office, or most of them anyway, were Democrats, led by a very charismatic governor, Ann Richards. And then you look, just fast-forward to 1998: All 38 or 39 constitutional statewide offices in Texas are Republican. That is just profound.

As I said, a lot of things were happening that would have happened anyway, but I think that you have to give a lot of credit to President Bush and to Karl Rove. President Bush had the vision, and Karl Rove had the plan.

I think putting that compassionate face on the Republican Party was incredibly powerful, and I think that putting the compassionate face on the Republican Party accelerated success. ...

Tell me about Rove, the first time you remember Rove in this political landscape.

Well, my earliest memories of Rove was just [his] kicking my butt mercilessly over and over and over again, and doing it so well, so completely, that all I could have was respect for it, because it was so masterful.

What did he do?

It was so comprehensive. Campaigns are usually sort of -- you look at them, and they're pretty messy. Campaigns are just by their nature that you draw them up, and they exist for six months or a year. But they are sort of instant corporations that you're trying to draw people together with, creating a group of working individuals in parts that are supposed to create an outcome. And it's just usually pretty darn messy.

The thing that was always amazing about a Rove campaign was he was just a juggernaut. Everything worked with precision and planning, meticulous. There was nothing messy about him. It was just well organized, well planned, no detail untouched.

One of the things that surprised me about this campaign in 2004 -- and it's just an extension of the president and the campaigns -- but the level of enthusiasm that this president, these Republicans have for volunteers is remarkable, because in most campaigns I've ever done with Democrats, or even any campaign, volunteers are always sort of put up with or paid lip service to. They're nice to have around -- you know, give them some stamps and tell them to lick some envelopes. What happens is that 90 percent of those people walk away disaffected, because they really want to help; they want to be engaged.

And this president's campaign and party has found a way to touch volunteers in a way that I don't think they ever had in politics before. It was just a credible sort of pyramid scheme that they give people things to do; they give them real responsibility. And this is another thing they have. It's part of that; it's an extension of the president's message, but it's about giving people responsibility and then demanding accountability. That's what happens in the campaigns, too.

And then when you look at his campaign and the outcome, the thing that shocked everybody was the Democrats had more money than Republicans. The real problem, and the real fundamental shock, I think, for most Democrats and a lot of people is, it's not that the Democrats ran a bad campaign; it's not that John Kerry was a bad candidate. This was a damn good campaign, a very good candidate, a completely unified party, and spent more money than the Republicans and still lost. That's the problem. That's the problem.

What happened?

Lots of things happened, but one of the things that I think is interesting, as we look at it in retrospect: Really, Ohio was the microcosm when we look at it. So that was ground zero. But we created new voters through volunteers. They tried to create new voters by paying people, and they couldn't do it by paying people.

It was a different model that we used, that the Republicans used, than the Democrats'. Boy, if you pay a bunch of people, you can get a lot of voters out. And they did; they paid a lot of people a lot of money, an enormous ground game. And the Republicans still turned out more people, because it was real. It was about enthusiasm; it was about really giving the volunteers something to do, something substantive to do. It wasn't just planned lip service. So I think these people were energized. They were given part of the franchise and were made to feel a part of it. And I think the Democrats have just taken these people for granted, and sort of said, OK, we're going to get a bunch of paid professionals to get out there with the clipboards.

[Tell me about the impact of the 527s.]

... What was interesting was that despite having almost unlimited money, the special interest money that was raised and spent against the Republicans, I think most of the time it was ill advised, not strategic, poorly timed, which I guess proves it's not coordinated. (Laughs.) That's part of the problem.

We had that same problem in 2000. We had 527 activities going on. People always said, "Of course you knew about it." Well, we didn't, because if we knew about it, we would have done it better. We had these ads going up on our behalf in New York and Connecticut on the environment which were just way off message and really hurt us up there in that campaign.

But one of the things that I think really happened was that they made the mistake of really crossing the line on the president. They just tried to make such a caricature out of the president. And again, I think this is a problem with the Democratic Party, which is incredible elitism, which is "We're smarter than they are; we're smarter than this president." And so part of what happens is, they cross the line for common decency and respect. And all those people out in the red states say: "Now wait a minute. I may not agree with this president, but he's our president; he deserves some level of respect." And I think [Fahrenheit 911 filmmaker] Michael Moore and the Democrats just went right over the cliff, Michael Moore leading the charge. And he was a big asset to us. That's why we invited him to the Republican convention and gave him credentials. He became the face of the Democratic Party.

Whose decision was that?

I don't recall, but it was a good one.

Some people, when they do the analysis of the campaign, of 527s, [they] talk about two central spots, the Swift Boat [Veterans'] spot about Kerry and "Ashley's Story." Tell me about those two. ...

These were two 527 spots, unlike the Democratic spots, which were incredibly powerful, incredibly well timed, amazingly strategic, and I think in the long run enormously helpful to the Republican effort. The Swift Boat ads -- I remember the second I saw the Swift Boat ads, which was the same time as everybody else did -- which, again, just proves there was no coordination -- but just as a professional, when I saw it, I was like, whoa, this is going to have a big impact. Yeah, it was just a powerful, powerful spot.

In what sense? Why?

Well, just kind of chilling. And professionally it was very well done. The production values, the message -- it was a story; it was a narrative story. It had an architecture. And that's what the best political ads do: They tell a story. This was a very powerful story told by people who obviously felt very strongly about it. Whether you agree with them or not, they had a story to tell.

So it was one of those things you just hit, and you go, man, this is going to have a big impact on his campaign. And it did. Looking back, of course, it was powerful because these people felt strongly about it, and they felt very emotionally about it. It was well crafted; it was well timed, in the middle of August, when there was not a lot else going on.

So the rock hit the pond and created a lot of ripples, and it created a firestorm in sort of grassroots America. It was one of those things where you go to the gym and everybody is talking about it, everybody.

Free publicity in that sense.

Yeah. Now the Ashley spot, again, is an interesting one, because it defied conventional wisdom in the sense that it was a positive 527 spot. ... It was an ad -- just as a professional I looked at it, and I said, "Man, what a great spot," because it made you feel something. It made you feel some emotion; it made you feel some connection with this president. And it happened in Ohio, ground zero. It featured this young woman from Ohio. And it happened at a time when there was so much ugly stuff out there, just as far as 527 and negative ads, and just people pounding each other. Suddenly you had this really nice, nice message about a human connection between a president and a young woman sharing an emotional moment.

It's hard to say exactly what the impact was, but as I look at it, Ohio won it for us. That was a critical spot, critical time. I think it had a big impact and made a difference.

When you guys are sitting around and something like the Swift Boat spot [comes up] … what are you thinking? What do you talk about? Who do you call and say, "Gee, did you see this?" …

... We went so far out of our way to make sure that there was no coordination with any 527 activity that -- as I said, when I literally saw the Swift Boat ad off Drudge and it came up, and I got it online and watched the ad when the rest of most reporters and a lot of America was seeing it for the first time, yeah, I run over to Matthew [Dowd] and Karl -- the first thing I do: "Have you seen this? This thing is going to have a big impact."

You knew.

Oh, yeah, right away.

And did the Democrats know?

Apparently not. Apparently not. As you rewind the campaign, one of the things that's gotten a lot of analysis was a failure to respond quickly and aggressively. It's hard to go back and say, "Would it have made a difference?" But certainly, when those things happen, you've got to, in 24-hour news cycles, you've got to be on top of it. Again, it's part of evolving campaigns. But in today's [landscape], with blogs and Internets and sort of virtual news, something like that cannot and should not go unattended. You sort of say, "Well, this is going to have a big impact," but you can't make that assumption. You've got to get on it and kill it immediately or address it.

[How has the media landscape changed since 2000?]

... Technology and media was evolving at a demanding pace, and campaigns have to be sharply cognizant of those changes and take advantage of them. And I'll give you an example of how we took advantage of the changes in 200[4] in our campaign. This involves one of the most important events of the campaign.

We discovered that John Kerry, from some good intelligence that we got, was going to be in West Virginia on a Tuesday. We found this out on a Sunday. We were all meeting and talking about our planning for the week. For a variety of reasons, we knew that he was going to talk to a group of veterans. We were aware after talking about this $87 billion appropriation to fund our troops that Kerry voted against, I knew it was a problem for him. It should have been a problem for him, because as you rewind the story, he told a CBS reporter specifically that he would vote for that appropriation, and specifically he said if his amended version of that bill went down, he would still vote for it. ... What happened was he got cross pressure -- [Howard] Dean took off in Iowa. He got cross-pressured by the left. And because of local pressure, he did what he said he would not do to the reporter: He voted against the appropriation. And so that to us said as much about John Kerry as anything we could possibly say.

So he's going to West Virginia. He's going to talk to a group of veterans who believe that this is likely to come up. We said, "Well, let's create an ad instantly." Sunday, Sunday night -- we write the ad Sunday night, produce it Monday. Because of technology, we have digital technology available to us now, we sent the ad to West Virginia at 5:00 in the morning, Tuesday morning, and it was on the air when Kerry got there in West Virginia. So when he lands, all the reporters and everybody is talking about this ad about him voting against the appropriation. His staff is talking to him about it; reporters are asking about it, talking about the ad.

So what happens is Kerry gets in front of the group, the veterans' group, and defends himself against the ad, which created the most iconic moment of the campaign, which is when he said to this group, "Before I voted against it, I actually voted for the $87 billion." We were up at the campaign, and we were watching it live, and we said, "We got it." And we immediately recut the ad with that piece of his video in front of the veterans to close the ad and put it out.

Did you hear a bell ring when it happened?

All the bells rang.

... It's the spring. Dean seems to be the predominant candidate. One of the things I've read a lot about is that you guys have raised so much money that one of the strategies seems to be if we can just inundate ads for the president and ads for the president and run some money off from the Democrats, maybe run Dean down -- is there a strategy like that?

No, not specifically. I think that we, like everyone else, were momentarily seduced by the notion that Dean could get the nomination. It was a fascinating, compelling candidacy, and like many of those often are, flamed out as quickly as it flamed on.

But we were prepared for that. It's interesting as I look back; I think the conventional wisdom is that Dean would not have been a good nominee, and I think in some respects that's true. But I'm not so sure that when you look at how the race shaped up -- I think that he in many ways -- listen, when you look at this race on paper early on, Kerry was actually a much easier guy to beat. When you look at his long record, it's inconsistent. Governors often make better candidates than senators, and there's a reason why: They have to make decisions; they're executives. It's a better breeding ground for presidents.

So Howard Dean, we initially looked at how that race would shape up, but we've always been sort of headed toward this direction of talking about President Bush as being steady, steady leader in times of change, because one of his obvious assets is that whether you agree with him or not, he's steady and has clear convictions about where he wants to go and what he believes.

When you stack that up against Howard Dean -- whenever you look at a political race, and you talk about your assets, you want to set it up in a way that it's not only how is your guy strong, but how is the other guy weak? So if Bush is strong and steady, what is Howard Dean? Howard Dean was unsteady, kind of like crazy unsteady. And when we talk to people about the Dean candidacy, they have problems seeing him in the Oval Office. We actually had an ad that had an empty chair in the Oval Office where we talked about this sort of thing. This is the most powerful office in the world, and we have to have the right guy here. And when we tested that, people said, "Yeah, Dean doesn't work in this Oval Office."

But when things shifted to Kerry, we quickly shifted gears. The first thing we realized is that people could see Kerry as president. And so we realized that strategy wasn't going to work, because [when] we did this Oval Office idea, people said, "Yeah, he could be president, sure."

But then we looked at Kerry's record and we said, well, this steady idea still works for us, because now steady versus unsteady in terms of no clear principles over the course of his career, just no defining, guiding vision. Nothing has really stood [out] consistently for us, so that's how we kind of embarked and maintained our strategy and adapted our strategy. …

Take me back, because we probably have to go backwards a minute here, to 2000. What was the plan? Who led it? How was it designed? How tough was it expected to be?

I'll start off by saying one thing that this president believes, and everybody around him, is that [you] never take anything for granted. So it's a very steady group of people that when things are really going well, people are very modulated about it. People never dance in the end zone. And when things go really badly, people are very sober about that, too. They say: "Don't overreact to that. You're up; you're down." But we also realize how fragile your political capital is, and to use it wisely. But I think the other thing that this president recognizes is there's only two ways to run a political race: unopposed or scared. Run like you're 20 points down no matter when it is or who you're running against.

And that's really the mind-set of Karl, the president, Matthew, others. It's just always run like you're down; never run like you're ahead.

Translate that into what you do.

Well, it's not just what I do, but I think it's what the campaign does. And one of the things that I think we ought to learn over the course of a number of campaigns together, and especially in a presidential campaign, is that strategically we needed to make it a choice and not a referendum. And I think it was a natural instinct for incumbents and others to make it a referendum about yourself. But that's not what politics are about. It's about a choice. It's not about one candidate. It's not just, do you think President Bush should be president? That's not the question. The question is, should it be President Bush or John Kerry? Well, that's a much different proposition.

And so we very early on, including and especially the president, recognized that, and right out of the box, this is about us and John Kerry. These are difficult, challenging and dangerous times, and who do you really want in the Oval Office? Look at our history; look at our visions. So we were never shy about that. ...

In 2004, the conventional wisdom is that security is the issue on everybody's mind. ... There is this sense in the air that Kerry and the Democrats will push a domestic agenda, a lack of policy orientation. Am I right about sensing that that's what they were hoping to do? And what was your reaction to that in strategic terms?

Yeah. Well, you're right, we believed and executed a strategy that was conditioned on the notion that this would be a referendum on or that it would be a race about national security. But that was a year away. And you never know how the landscape is going to change, what's going to happen to the environment. So we were very offensive on that message, but we also made sure we had a strong defensive message on issues like the economy. We never left that entirely unattended. We were very aggressive in making sure that we constantly had a message about the economy, and making clear that we also were paying attention to the domestic agenda. That was particularly true in our convention.

I think that the Kerry campaign did make a mistake in not doing a better job of clearly articulating an agenda out of the convention, beyond the biography, because I don't care what they say: You ask anybody about the Kerry convention two weeks later, what they remember about it -- nothing except Vietnam. And so you build your whole campaign on that, that's a problem, especially when you've got something like Swift Boats going on. You've got to have something else to fall back on, and something else to fall back on if you're a politician ought to be your record and your vision.

So we were very aggressive, particularly right out the convention, with a series of ads for a couple of weeks, and the whole campaign [was] very, very focused on domestic agenda -- specifics, really laid out a plan for domestic agenda. So we were always cognizant and not worried about it, because we didn't know whether or not it would ultimately shape up to be -- we thought it would be a campaign about national security, but we'd want to make sure.

So take me inside the process. How was it decided which domestic issues [to focus on]? How does that happen? I know that there's polling; I know there's all that other stuff. Take me down to where that information finally comes to you, you make a spot, or other things happen.

Well, I think the most important thing to recognize is that in all the campaigns with President Bush, it always begins with the president saying: "Here are the things I care about. These are the things I want to talk about. Now, you guys can go and execute the plan however you want to, but this is what I'm talking about; this is what I believe in. …

So we think about some issues like Social Security. [In] 2000 we talked about that. When that first came up we went, "Are you kidding?" This has been the death of just about any politician who's ever talked about it. We're going to do this in a presidential campaign, talk about reforming Social Security? And he said: "I don't care what the polls say. I think it's the right thing to do, and we're going to do it." We salute and say, "Yes, sir."

And then he gives us creative latitude about how we present it. But it's pretty clear what the agenda is going to be. So we don't sit around and say, "Oh, we're going to talk about Social Security." We got the order; we're going to talk about it. …

What are the other issues on that list?

The president lived to talk about it. He defied the conventional wisdom. But we were always worried about the economy. The presidential elections are often about the economy. It was tough; we were always hanging on those job numbers every month. That last Friday of every month, our policy guy would just be checking -- when we'd come in in the morning, we'd be trying to determine whether the numbers would be good or not. They were just good enough. They were just good enough so that it didn't become a huge issue. People didn't feel great about it, but it was headed in the right direction. That's all we need.

And interestingly, when people think about the economy, they think more about where it's going than where it's been. So the important thing is that it was headed in the right way and that we didn't overstate it. We didn't say things were great. We were very, very careful in how we talked about the economy.

Are there some spots that don't get through the filter that you've made that you've really liked coming out of that period that never saw the light of day?

There was something in 2000.


They were some very funny spots about Al Gore that [comedian] Ben Stein did that never ran, and the only reason they didn't was not -- they were some of the favorite spots that we've ever made, but the time was just wrong. The issues were too heavy at the time for those ads to run. It wasn't the right time.

What would they do?

[They] were funny. You know, it's Ben Stein. Ben Stein is a very funny guy. He was kind of making fun of Al Gore and some of his policies. It was very lighthearted stuff, but it was stuff that breaks through. That's what you're always trying to do on political campaigns, is do something that people will recognize and notice. So humor is always good.

What was wrong with Al Gore's campaign?

That people didn't think that he was authentic. Again, this gets to this whole issue of humanity. Here's an interesting thing about John Kerry. Early on we asked a group of focus groups -- this is, like, March, when the gas prices were starting to spike -- and we asked a group of focus group participants in the Midwest. We said, "How many of you can see President Bush filling up his own car with gas?" And there were about 24 respondents or so, and about half of the hands went up in the room. And the moderator said, "Well, how many people see John Kerry filling up his own car with gas?" Not a single hand.

So that's early on; that's in March. So he's already got a problem, being elite, out of touch, disconnected. So many things happened in the campaign to reinforce that. And of course we work hard to do that, but there were mistakes of his own making that helped reinforce --

One of the things we got into was this idea, for lack of a more precise phrase, [of] nontraditional media; that is, all the different ways you can get an ad across. You talked about the veterans and the flip-flop. What other ways do you think about going at it, other than just making a TV commercial?

Well, it goes to one of your questions, which is how campaigns change, and they change a lot, because the media change and technologies change. You talk about the difference between 2000 and 2004 -- enormous changes in the ability to compress media and move it through the Internet. So we have the ability now to take longer-format television, television ads, and now we go to 60 seconds or a couple of minutes or three minutes, or five minutes even, compress it and send it as e-mails to people. We had an e-mail list of 6 million people that we could just punch a button, and 6 million people would have moving video. And it didn't have to be 30 seconds. And actually, the laws are different; you don't have to have the disclaimers on.

So there were things that we could do through the Internet that were very powerful, very quick, that we could never do before. And I think that that's going to continue as campaigns move forward. I think broadcast television advertising is going the way of the dinosaur.

And presumably, when you're sending 6 million e-mails out, you know who those people are; you've targeted --

We do. Again, it goes to this whole organizational idea ... of motivating your base and reinforcing your message with people who support you. If you can get moving 3-D video to people that they can see and hear and feel, and then they in turn send it to five of their best friends or people that they think are interested in politics or they want to persuade -- 6 million times five, and you're up to 30 million. You see how it extrapolates out pretty forcefully.

It's extremely interesting to me the idea that the way the story is told, you guys, through metrics and all kinds of other genius strategies, really did something amazing and new and different. But presumably the Democrats were doing these things, too. Why were they not as effective as you were?

... That's a big question. It has to do with organization, but it also has to do with message and relevance. And there's an interesting debate, dissection of the campaign over the issue of values, this business about values. Well, every election is about values. Now, the mistake that I think that the press and Democrats made is they say, "Well, this is about moral values." Well, go back and look at the ads. Did you see any ads about gay marriage, abortion? No. But you hear a lot of discussion about family, about faith, about freedom. Those are shared values. Those are the kind of values we're talking about. We're talking about shared interest that we as Americans have of things that we care about.

That's why the Democrats really missed the boat completely. We're talking about values; we're talking about shared institutions that we care about, shared beliefs. It's not about morals.

This idea of a base strategy as an idea, I know the president called Karl Rove "the architect." Is the base strategy Rove's idea? ... What did you think when you heard "base strategy"?

Well, that it was pretty radical, first of all. But listen, it struck me as a political consultant as something radical, because for years we had always talked about that persuadable middle electorate, and that's what it was all about. You ignored everything else. All your resources went into that persuadable vote. But that vote was typically 20 percent of the electorate. And when you look at the history, which Karl and Matthew did very closely, they looked at it and said: "This share of the pie is getting pretty thin. It's getting down to, like, 7 percent of true swing voters." So if that's the case, it means two things: one, that 7 percent is more important than ever; and two, [the] other part of the pie, we better pay attention to that, because if it's only 7 percent that's persuadable, we've got to make sure that we get these people out and vote. And that's what this campaign put a real focus on, was paying attention to the 7 percent for certain, but also making sure that there was a lot of attention paid to this other 42 percent.

So what do you do? What do you design, spots and other things, communications that are different than they would have been when it was just about the vital center?

Well, we tried very hard to create and communicate messages that appeal to both, but we did think about that. And when you look at those ads, if you parse them out, you look at the language and the architecture of the ads, there is a lot of language about family, faith and sacrifice and freedom, because we knew that that was a message that appealed both to this swing vote, but also had a very powerful appeal to our base. ...

[Tell me about the creative process.]

Well, the creative process was pretty lean, which is rare in any political campaign. But it's part of why this presidency works well and the campaigns have worked well. The president believes in very, very tight decision making.

I remember there was a committee that met in 2000 that had six people in every morning. It was kind of a strategic planning committee, and at various times around the campaign, there were very concerted efforts to expand that group, to include maybe seven or eight or nine or 10. The president said, "Absolutely, if somebody else comes in, somebody else goes out." So that notion of keeping a really tight, small unit to make decisions, it's incredibly important in campaigns, because speed is in words. Speed kills, so you've got to be able to make decisions quickly. ...

Take me to the 2002 midterm elections. Everybody says it was incredibly political, unbelievably historic. You were involved.

Not much really. I would say it's interesting in its analysis, because I think the president and Karl, one of the things that they do is they learn well. They recognize when we make mistakes, and they don't make them twice. And I think we recognized that we made a mistake in the 2000 election in failing to fully energize our ground game. The Democrats did a better job in 2000.

So Karl didn't waste any time and said, "OK, that's not going to happen again." He created what he called the 72-Hour Task Force, which was built and designed to make sure that that same mistake wasn't made in 2002. And actually it was an exercise to put together a program, really, for 2004. It was kind of test-driven in 2002 quite successfully.

But again, it's one of those things that [in] campaigns, you learn a lot from your mistakes if you're smart. And the president, Karl and Matthew are really smart about it. Just took their model, their turnout model, and [made] sure that we did as good a job or better. ...

It is appropriate that there be analysis on the attention given to motivating the base of the Republican party. But what's left out of a lot of the analysis is the fact that this campaign and the president turned out 11 million new voters. This was not the base -- 11 million new people. So I think it's important that that fact not be neglected.


Because of message. Because people thought it was relevant and important to their lives. I think that they looked at this president and said: "These are important, dangerous times. This guy's got a message I believe in, and I want this guy to be president." This wasn't just a bunch of Republicans out there saying, "We need a Republican." These are guys saying, "This guy is the right president at the right time." It's created new voters.

The gay marriage thing in 11 states, how important do you think --

I think it's an easy excuse for Democrats. I think Democrats say, "It was a gay marriage thing, and that's why we lost." Not true. I don't believe that for a second. I think it is a little piece of the puzzle, but it's not the puzzle. I think its impact is overestimated. Again, I think it was a much broader set of values that people were voting on -- national security, ideas like freedom and faith and sacrifice. And it wasn't about gay marriage. ...

Where are you, and what's going on when you start to hear the first exit polls on Election Day 2004?

I'm on Air Force One, and we are just landing. And we've been out all day. And we're all feeling very good -- confident, but not overconfident, but confident, feeling good; optimistic, but on pins and needles about the exit polls, as we always are.

And just as we're landing, Karl gets a call, and it's pretty clear that it's -- we know what's happening. Karl kind of turns the corner, and he's taking down the numbers. And I didn't need to know a thing, because I read it all in his face. They were bad, and probably really bad. And then we got an indication. The air went out of the airplane. The air just got sucked out. And I went into immediate depression. They were so overwhelmingly bad across the board that I really had a sense of impending doom. I just thought it was over.

Now, Karl and Matthew began immediately dissecting the numbers and quickly recognized a methodological flaw. Now, I thought they were probably right, but still, just the massive sort of numbers led me to believe that we should probably start packing. But those flaws were pretty extreme, as it turned out.

But you've been around long enough to know that the effect of exit polls, both on the other side and on the press and on people who are on national television while polls are still open is what?

It's a real problem. And I, [for] the life of me, am still trying to figure out what the real rationale is for exit polling. I don't know what public good it serves. In fact, I think it's done a lot of public harm, with the 2000 election, with this election. I'd like to legislate them out of existence if we could. I think it definitely shapes -- certainly you look at 2000; you look at the coverage and early shaping. It can have an impact, and arguably it had a real impact in 2000 when they were reporting Florida [before] Florida had even completed voting in the panhandle. So it's a real problem.

And listen, it led some of the Kerry staff to call Kerry, "Mr. President." So it was tough for us, but imagine how tough it was for them.

Is that right?

Yeah, that's right. One of the senior advisers said, "May I be the first to call you Mr. President?" And I'm told by friends of mine from the other side that John Kerry was sent to clean up and shave and get ready for his acceptance speech. So it was tough for us, but boy, how tough for them to think he'd got it and then have it slip away.

So did you see the president on the plane when the exit polls were happening?

I talked to him about an hour later, after he got to the White House, and he gave me a call, and he said, "What do you think?" Of course I put a great face on it. I said: "Oh, it's completely baloney. It's all fine. It's a methodological flaw." ...

And when did you know everything was probably going in the other direction, and you were OK?

… We were bouncing back and forth between the campaign and the bar about a block away from the campaign headquarters. And it went from funereal to celebration over the course of about, I'd say, probably 9:00 to 11:00. ...

The change in Texas politics over that decade, how much of it do you give to Rove?

Well, I think it would have been hard without a messenger at the top, but a lot of credit, a lot of credit. Like I said, I think that Karl may have speeded up the transition by a decade.

And it really is that kind of steady, what you talked about earlier.

Well, it was not just steady, but Karl was plowing the fields of Texas looking for candidates. He created a farm team. He went out and sought out and begged for candidates at a time when there really weren't any Republican candidates. He built a farm team, and that's how they became pros. They sent people up from the farm.

Do you know what he was looking for in a candidate?

Conviction, focus, steadiness, loyalty. ...

Why did [Bush] beat Ann Richards?

Incredibly focused candidate. And I think he made a fundamental decision, which was the right one, which was he never attacked her personally. I think that what he did was, he said: "Here's what I stand for. Here's my vision for Texas." And he said: "Gov. Richards -- a good woman, good person, just not in line politically with Texas anymore. Let's give her a gold watch, give her a hand and send her off." So he was very deferential. He was not disrespectful, which was the right thing to do, because people liked her. ...

When did you think this guy could actually be president? When did they sign you up?

Well, the interesting thing about being a governor of Texas or California or Florida or New York [is] that the day after you're elected, people start talking about you being president. It just happens. Look at any one of those states, any one of those governors. You look at the paper the next day, and they'll start talking about them being president. I remember during our last campaign for president, somebody remarking that, "If you're the governor of Texas, you start off with one-fifth of the votes in the country." That's a pretty good place to start. Add the fact that your name was Bush; young, smart, focused, strategic -- pretty good package. So the talk was swirling around George Bush almost from the beginning. And I helped in that re-election, and it just kept going. It just never stopped.

So you knew even from then that this was heading for 2000.

It was out there. It was certainly out there.

What happened in New Hampshire in 2000?

New Hampshire 2000 was maybe one of the most important, defining events of the president's career. We got our ass kicked. We got humbled. We got put on our knees in the snow, the cold snows of New Hampshire. And I think that almost any other campaign would not have survived that defeat. We lost by 19 points. Guys that worked with me in that campaign who have worked on other presidential campaigns were literally packing their bags. They said: "It's over. You lose New Hampshire, especially when you're supposed to win it, you lose it by 19, you are gone." They were on the tarmac, hitching a ride out.

And it's one of the most impressive moments I've ever seen from the president. And that's when he gathered us, the campaign core team there in New Hampshire, that afternoon, and pulled us into the room. And I expected to get our heads taken off. I thought we were just going to get a tongue-lashing, criticized and then kicked out and fired. And he was exactly the opposite. He sat down. He said: "Listen, this is a real test for all of us. First thing I want you to know is this is not your fault. This is my fault. I take full responsibility for this loss. Now, the question is not why did we lose, but what do we do from here?" And when he went out that night, on television, you turn off the sound, it looked like a victory speech.

And the way he rallied all of us in that moment of real adversity was so powerful, and that's what led me to believe he'd be a great president, too, because what a great leader he was when things were really bad. And so you think about a 9/11 president. He was the perfect guy. He's so good at bringing people together when things are really in crisis. He's a really gifted leader in times of adversity. So New Hampshire was a pivotal moment, and I think it helped make him a better president.

What was different by the time he got to South Carolina?

Well, as I said earlier, one of the things that was different is that the president began to recognize one of the things that New Hampshire helped us all recognize, that it was a choice and not a referendum. It was not just about George Bush. It was a choice. It was [Sen.] John McCain or George Bush. So we had to make clear that it was not just about George Bush, but about the choice between these two candidates. We got tougher, and we got focused, and we learned how to win.

McCain, of course, says too tough, too focused, nasty, dirty politics.

Same guy who came out and endorsed us enthusiastically in 2004. Listen, politics is a tough, tough, tough sport, and it's no tougher than in South Carolina.

What was the impact of winning South Carolina?

Well, let me just reverse it. If we lost, we would have lost. ... Now, we had lost Michigan after that, which was a devastating defeat as well, but we had built a national strategy. First of all, all along we anticipated that somebody like McCain would come along. We knew it was going to be somebody. That always happens. There's a front-runner, and somebody emerges to take out the front-runner. It's a physical law of primaries, presidential primaries. It happens. So the fact that it happened did not surprise us.

So we built a strategy, a 50-state strategy, built on the notion that somebody would come and clock us pretty good and that we'd better have the resources, the money and the troops to withstand the incursion. And in this case, McCain got right to where you could see the whites of his eyes, and he ran out of gas. We had the troops and the fuel, because we built our campaign on that strategy. He ran a hell of a race. We had the strategy that was built to win. …

How soon were you signed up for the 2004 elections? Were you involved in discussions?

There was never really a discussion. It was just, this has always been a team, and we never stopped working and trying to help the president. I never assumed that I'd have the job, but there was never an RFP for the job. It's a very close, tight-knit group that's worked together for years, and the president just kept the team together.

So after the Supreme Court decision and the inauguration, people are actually talking about a re-election campaign? Are you involved in real discussions?

Fairly early on, yeah. It's a pretty astute political team, and very early on, I think, first of all, there was a recognition that the best insurance for re-election was to pass legislation and policy that was the right thing to do, and supported his campaign in 2000. So that was the first order of business: Do right; do good policy; run good government.

But there were discussions. We looked across the landscape, looked at the Democrats early on again, thinking about who might be the nominee, and talked to Matthew about -- Karl sent him off to presidential libraries to do research on how their re-election campaigns had been conducted. So Matthew did a lot of legwork in the Reagan Library, Clinton Library and archives.

What was your favorite spot in the 2004 election?

There's three that I think had a real impact. The "Wolves" spot, which we worked on for six months. The "Wolves" spot started off -- we knew we wanted a metaphor for this race and a metaphor for the war on terrorism. Early on, that metaphor was a flame and a match and fire. The idea was, there's a fire across the sea that's burning, and it's come across the ocean to our shores, and there's real danger in this fire. And so we tested that with focus groups, and people were like, "What? Fire? Terrorism?" They didn't get it at all. And I loved the idea, so I kept retesting it, hoping I'd find just the right group, which is a classic problem of getting the creative people involved.

Confirming bias.

Yeah, confirmation bias, exactly. And so we recognized that we had a problem. The concept didn't work, but we wanted to find one that did, that still established the metaphor. So we kept working, and the idea of the wolves as a metaphor emerged, and we tested that. People got it right away. It was like, "Oh, yeah, wolves, terrorists, scary. Got it." So we kept working on it, getting the language just right. This process started in March, and we worked on that spot until a week before it ran, tweaking it, because we felt very strongly at the beginning that it would have a big impact, and I think it did have a big impact.

The windsurfer spot I think had a big impact, because it just reflected how people felt about Kerry, and it's just one of those things, another iconic moment, this guy windsurfing. Not a lot of people in battleground states windsurf. And so it communicated that Kerry was elite, disconnected, and also helped communicate this idea of flip-flop. It was politics.

And then third, I'd say probably the spot that really had the most impact was the $87 billion spot, where we get Kerry on camera saying, "I actually [voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it]."

Three very different kinds of spots.

That's right.

Are there differences of opinion among the campaign about those three? Did you run them by the president, and did he say, "Yes, no, I don't like it"? You talked about tweaking "Wolves." Was there a lot of tweaking from him?

Without getting into personalities or individuals on the campaign, I would say that there was some concern and consternation about "Wolves," as there always is about any powerful spot. If there's concern, that generally testifies that it's a powerful spot. If there's no concern, generally that tells me the spot's probably not going to have much impact. It's when there's controversy about it. And yeah, we had controversy about the first spots that we did that talked about 9/11. That created a dynamic, and that created an impact, because there was controversy around the notion that we talked about 9/11. It's kind of quaint, when you look back on the spots. What was all the controversy about?

I read that he was really worried about 9/11 and about --

Everybody was. It was a matter of, how do you talk about it? When do you talk about it? It's a sensitive issue. But as we all learned, it's the defining moment not only of this president, but perhaps of our lives. And certainly 9/11 had everything to do with where we are as a country today. It dictates what's happening in our foreign policy and our domestic agenda entirely. So it would have been malpractice not to talk about it. ...

I haven't asked you about the personal relationship between Karl and the president. What's that like?

It's fascinating. They've been together for so long, and they understand each other so completely. Well, let me back up. It's a fascinating relationship, but at the end of the day, one is the president, and one's a consultant. They both recognize that. I think there's a friendship, a respect, but they understand the dynamics and the physics of the office. And so Karl knows that he's the president; Karl is the architect. But the idea of the house was the president's, and he's the guy who wanted to build it. Karl just told him to do it. So the vision and the ideas and the energy, that starts with the president. And Karl is just a great mechanic and helped put the car together.

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posted april 12, 2005

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