NAME: Matthew Dowd | AGE: 45 | HOMETOWN: Austin | QUALIFICATIONS: Chief strategist for George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns / Current strategist for California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger /Co-author of Applebee’s America, a new book about politics and culture
• To run a successful political campaign you have to connect with the American people at a gut level. Most failed campaigns try to make an intellectual argument to voters: “I have a position on taxes or health care or some other issue, therefore you should vote for me.” A winning campaign is built upon core values, like tolerance and compassion. Is this person honest and trustworthy? Does this person care about me? Is this person strong and decisive? Ronald Reagan is a classic example of this.
• In 1992 the most important gut value was the public’s sense that a candidate cared about them and understood them. Then you had a presidential candidate, Bill Clinton, who felt people’s pain. He intuitively understood that, in fact, the campaign wasn’t about the economy, stupid. It was about “cares about you,” stupid.
• What you say about your opponent should be closely related to what you say about yourself. Two sides of the same value coin.
• What was the flip side of Clinton’s “cares about you” message? Bush looking at his watch in the debate, seeming to not understand what a supermarket scanner was. In 2004 our message was that Bush was a strong and decisive leader at a time of great anxiety and change, that people knew where he stood. What was the opposite of that? John Kerry, flip-flopper, all over the map.
• A winning campaign ultimately appeals to people’s broader interest and not their self-interest. It calls people to a cause, something bigger than themselves. There are a lot of Democratic intellectuals out there who just can’t believe this.
• In 2004 Bush had one big, broad values message that was basically the same everywhere, and we figured out how to communicate it through 122 different tiny channels—direct mail, knocking on doors, cable TV, health club networks, e-mail, and radio advertising. The message was the same: Fundamentally, you can trust this guy. The Kerry folks had the opposite strategy. They had a hundred messages and submessages that they communicated broadly, to everyone.
• You need to communicate with the voters who will decide the election. Many pundits have said that because people have their own cable channels and the Internet, they have become more independent. They don’t need other institutions or people; they can get their own information. But the exact opposite has happened: There is so much information out there that somebody has to help them through it. Those “helpers” are basically about 10 to 15 percent of the population. They are people whom others trust and come to for advice, whether it’s for product recommendations, restaurants, or political decisions. The Bush campaign built a database of two million of these people—we call them navigators—in 2004. We tried finding them and communicating with them.
• Usually more wrong lessons are drawn from winning campaigns than from losing ones. People assume that if you won a campaign, you did everything right.