When Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign asked Vinny Minchillo to join its creative team, he didn’t hesitate. Minchillo had worked on number of political campaigns, including George W. Bush’s 2004 re-elect, and many of his old colleagues, like Stuart Stevens, were already at Romney’s headquarters in Massachusetts. And Minchillo, now a principal at Plano’s Glass House Strategy, notes that Boston had at least one advantage over the Metroplex: 24-hour cannoli shops. He stopped by the Texas Monthly office at the end of November for a debrief about the art and science of political advertising.
You were living in the horse race. Was it fun?
I don’t know if I could do it forever, but it was fun. You get up in the morning and look at your emails with the headlines from overnight. We’d watch Morning Joe every day so we’d know what the other side was doing. At least for me and my roommate, that was our big idea: “We’ll know their talking points if we watch Morning Joe!”
How fast can you get an ad out there? 24, 48 hours?
24-48 hours? We don’t have that kind of time. I’ll give you an example. Late in the race, the president made a comment about hiring a secretary of business. When we saw that in the clips, it was 11:30 at night. We pulled everybody together and went back to the office and created a spot and got it done and through approval in the course of, say, 90 minutes. And it was in the news the next morning. So it can go that fast.
Are you in the Nate Silver/Sasha Issenberg camp of data-driven campaigns?
My background is that I’m a traditional ad guy. I came out of brand advertising. For brand advertising, there’s data, and there’s a sense of what your brand can and can’t do. So, for example, for Romney, we didn’t do wacky comedy commercials, because that’s against the Romney brand. If we did a wacky comedy commercial it’d be like, “You guys have lost your mind.” Data’s really important, but you can be a slave to the data—there’s still an art to it.
Is it possible to rebrand a candidate once the brand is set?
Like, during the campaign?
Well, during the campaign, or over time.
To me, there’s even a little bit of a problem with that notion. The brand has to be an organic thing; the brand has to come out of who that candidate is. I wouldn’t take Candidate A and try to morph him into something else. If that person is a businessperson, kind of sober and straight-shooting, his or her ads ought to reflect that. If they’re a big personality, kind of gregarious, their ads ought to reflect that. So I think that brand should be a reflection of that person.
This is kind of existentially complicated. What if the person changes?
There’s no question that a person who goes through a political battle changes. It’s a bit of a magnifying glass. Whatever personality traits they have, they’re there, but they become bigger because you’re looking at them so closely.
It reminds me of Robert Caro’s comment, that people think power corrupts, but actually power reveals.
I would agree with that.
You worked on George W. Bush’s re-election campaign in 2004. The media landscape has changed since then.
There are so many pieces to that. Social media and digital media have really changed the landscape a lot, and every cycle it changes a little. It used to be, “Well, that’s a good way to organize volunteers.” And then it became, “Hey, that’s a good way to raise money.” And now it’s a really good way to persuade voters. The part about digital that fascinates me the most, and you saw this on Facebook and Twitter, is that people who are not connected to the campaign, not paid by the campaign, have no stake in this at all other than personal feeling, were picking up the mantle on one side or the other and having these big brawls with their friends on Facebook. It’s an amazing way for people to be part of the process. For us, it’s an amazing way to bring an issue out there, and keep a discussion going, and also to monitor that. We monitored social media every single day, to see what people were talking about.
Are there any surprising things that turn out better or worse than you’d expect, like the meme about the Romney sons or the meme about Romney with a tiny head?
What happens in a lot of those memes, is usually something that is not true or half-true is at the base of them, and they’re posted and posted and reposted long enough to where people think it’s true. That’s always a little dangerous, but I kind of feel like in the world of social media, no one’s ever going to get convinced. You got people on one side and people on the other side and it’s cool to see them battle it out, but no one’s ever going to get convinced in those conversations.
Given how new media’s changed the landscape, and the growth of independent expenditures—does all of that offset the need for paid advertising? Does it still cost so much to run for office in Texas.
You know, I think it levels the playing field. Just to look at the Republican primary, Ted Cruz won his primary at a relative bargain. He put in some money, and then let’s not forget the outside folks put in some money, five or seven million dollars. That’s still a lot of money, but a relative bargain for a statewide seat. So there was paid media and a great deal of social media and shoe leather—it can be done, but gosh, in Texas it’s not easy.
That’s interesting, because one of the factors Texas Democrats have been dealing with is that they don’t have as much money as Republicans. What do you think—can Texas turn blue?
I do think it can happen. There’s two things you need. Number one, demographics, which are changing. And then—if I learned anything from this race in 2012—it’s that what voters are always looking for, always hungry for, and always ready to embrace is a big idea candidate. We saw that in 2008; Obama was a big idea candidate. He threw that brand away in 2012, but that’s another question. If we have a statewide gubernatorial candidate who’s a big idea candidate—you know, it could go either way.
Do you think people relate to a big idea because it’s a big idea, or because of what big idea it is in particular?
That’s an interesting question. People want to be with a winner. People like somebody with personality. People respond to charisma. It wasn’t that long ago that our state was completely Democrat, and that candidates were listed as Democrat-C or Democrat-L for conservative or liberal. That was just the 1970s. It’s not out of the realm of possibility, but it’s got to be a big personality, big idea candidates.
At the same time, you mentioned a change in Obama’s message between 2008 and 2012—how do you interpret the results of this election?
This goes back to branding. I’m a brand nut. In 2008 you have the “Hope and Change” brand. Amazing brand. 2012, he throws it out. I don’t know why, but I would think that he didn’t have the record to be able to back that up, to be able to continue to say “hope and change.” They’re smart guys; they had a good reason to do that, but I thought that was fascinating. To me, it seemed like new Coke. Coke threw their brand away, and said, “Alright, we’re New Coke now!” It’s like, what are you doing? You can’t throw away this great brand! To me, Obama did the same thing this year. Now, they made it work; they went from a very big idea, “hope and change,” positive philosophical notion, to this sort of “fear and negativity” kind of brand. And they made it work, so hat’s off to them. But that’s a risky play.
Could Romney have won in this cycle?
Oh absolutely. If you go back and look at the numbers, this was a really really close election. We outperformed McCain in 2008, and Obama did not hit his numbers in 2008, so it was really very close. For example—not to throw numbers all around—but in Florida: 8 million votes cast. We lost by 73,000. And really the difference in the popular vote was only about 300,000, so it was really a very close election. We absolutely could have won. And on election night, I honestly thought we were going to win.