C&E: Tell us about the new firm.
Russ Schriefer: In July, we’re launching Strategic Partners & Media. Along with my current business partners Stuart Stevens and Ashley O’Connor, we’re bringing in Austin Barbour, Heath Garrett, Vinnie Minchillo and Cesar Martinez. The firm will offer media, strategic services and crisis communications, too.
C&E: So the services are expanding?
Schriefer: I think we recognize that the campaign business has changed dramatically. We can better serve our clients by broadening the firm. We’ll also be adding some additional partners over the next few months. We’ve never marketed ourselves as doing crisis communications per se, but given the nature of the campaigns we work we often get pulled into that. I do think it’s important to understand what we aren’t. We’re not pollsters and we don’t pretend to be. We aren’t a big PR firm with lots of account executives. We don’t do phones or mail, and we’re not going to start.
C&E: What’s your process after a campaign?
Schriefer: We’re constantly looking at what happened and talking about why a particular campaign won or lost. You’re a genius when you win; you’re an idiot when you lose. We’ve been both. I think there are campaigns we’ve lost that were really good, well-run campaigns. They were campaigns that stuck to a message, but because the national environment was overwhelmingly against the candidate we were working for, or for financial reasons, our candidate lost. It doesn’t mean the campaign wasn’t a good campaign.
C&E: Would you put the Romney campaign in that category?
Schriefer: There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not asking, “Could we have done something differently?” What I’m coming more and more to believe is that I’m not sure there’s anything tactically that we could have done to win the race. Could we have done things better? Yes. But would it have impacted the race differently? I don’t know. What I do think is there were some fundamentals in the election cycle that contributed to the loss. We would have needed to be aware of those beforehand and been prescient enough to know they were going to happen, and then maybe we would have been able to maneuver things differently. But there’s not a day that goes by where I don’t think, “Could we have done that differently?”
C&E: Is there one decision or one piece of the strategy you think about the most?
Schriefer: If you look at the data—we needed to do better with the Hispanic vote. It would have been great if we could have done better with African Americans, but I don’t know that was going to happen with Mitt Romney running against Barack Obama. But the thing that bothers me the most is whether we were messaging well enough to voters making under $50,000 a year. We had a good message for those voters, but I think could we have done more to talk to those voters specifically and encourage more of them to turn out.
C&E: Is that more voter contact? Is that delivery of the message?
Schriefer: I don’t really think it’s tactical. I think it’s about message. At the time, we thought we had messages that were resonating with enough of those voters. I think when you look at the exit polls and the rest of the data, there simply wasn’t enough of them. Here’s one thing that’s really interesting to think about—you could argue that group votes Republican more often when there is an external threat facing the country. In 2004, they voted for George W. Bush, because it was post-9/11. In the 1980s, it wasn’t just the economy. It was also about the Iran hostage crisis. Even go back to 1968—we had Vietnam and riots at home. It wasn’t just a straight economy play that was motivating these voters to turn out and vote Republican.
C&E: How about the media buying operation? Would you have designed that differently looking back on it?
Schriefer: On the media buying front, you have to look at a couple of things. We modeled our media buying operation after what the 1988 Bush campaign did—the media buy was brought in-house. It was done at zero commission. Any kind of savings went directly back into the campaign and were funneled back into the media buy, which literally saved tens of millions of dollars. We were often buying time late, because that’s when our money was coming in. Very often, we’d want to buy another 500 points in the Columbus market for five days from now.