Devine: I’m glad to hear you say you lost five of the last six. That makes me feel better. (laughter)
Ayres: Five of the last six in the popular vote.
C&E: Whit, you and some other Republicans have been talking about these demographic problems for a while. How did the party let itself get to this point?
Ayres: That answer unfortunately is too easy. We got there by threatening to veto the Dream Act, by calling for self-deportation, by not reaching out aggressively in the Hispanic community and not making Hispanics feel as though we want them as part of our team. During the primary, Romney took some positions that I guess he thought were necessary to win the primary. I happened to disagree on that. But once he took those positions he was stuck with them.
Rowley: As you’re thinking about retooling for the future you should not look past how poor of a candidate Romney was. If they had a better candidate, I think we would have had a dramatically different campaign. He was just colossally horrible as a candidate. We as Democrats should not take too much comfort in how this cycle went because a big piece of it was what a horrible nominee the Republicans had.
Devine: I agree with that about Romney although, if Romney had been as good in the second debate as he was in the first and Obama had been as bad, this election might have been a lot closer.
Ayres: And there are other factors too that are much larger than the particular nominee. We’ve got a presidential nominating process and a debate process that presents our worst possible image to the world. Some of the things that were said and done during that debate process haunted us through the entire campaign. Now it’s tough to get a handle on that because we don’t have a national party and a national chairman that can dictate anything.
Rowley: What do you mean specifically about the debates?
Ayres: First of all, the number of debates was ridiculous. The format was ridiculous and you had some questions that were designed to embarrass everybody on stage. We have too many contests that exacerbate the power of the minority rather than reach out and bring in a large majority of Republicans. There are some structural challenges that we need to fix so that we have a stage full of truly credible contenders, rather than people who are just trying to make a name for themselves.
Innocenzi: Exactly—people who just want to sell a book or end up with a radio talk show.
C&E: As you look ahead to next cycle, can you speak to your particular disciplines? What are the greatest challenges moving forward in your sectors of the industry?
Devine: As someone who makes television ads, I can assure you that the business changes very quickly. I’ve been making TV ads full time for 20 years. When I started making ads, I used to take a train to Philadelphia because we had a studio there. Sometimes it would take a couple of days to do something. Maybe we’d fly something somewhere. I do a shoot now and we can edit on a laptop while we’re sitting there filming the ad. We could probably figure out a way to get it to a TV station if we wanted to. The challenge from our perspective is that you have to make sure you’re not left behind in dealing with that. I love the fact that we can make things happen so quickly and move so fast. Secondly, television is still dominant but it’s changing. The way that we communicate with voters is changing rapidly. You either have to embrace that change and become part of it or it’s going to overwhelm you.
Innocenzi: I’ve been making ads for 30 years. I remember when you first started there were three networks and an independent in most markets, so it was really easy to buy TV. You were also able to get huge market shares. Now with broadcast and cable and social media it really has become much more difficult to build name ID or brand awareness for a candidate. I agree with you on the technology, but it’s both good and bad. With the technology, everybody thinks they know how to do it now and you create a lot of garbage out there. There is a lot of crap on TV because everyone says, “I have a laptop so I can make TV ads.” That’s the downside and it clutters the airwaves and jacks prices up.
Rowley: The barrier to entry is lower now, even to just be a consultant. This used to be more of a secret society, but now with the way the business has evolved it’s an aspirational vocation. We’re also communicating so much earlier now because we either have the money or it’s just taking longer to get the message out. I think we’ve seen a little bit of a de-professionalization of the business where there are more people in media, polling and mail, and every operative wants to have their own firm.
Ayres: From a polling perspective, reaching the right people is increasingly challenging. It’s just amazing the number of people who are cellphone-only now. I’m one of them. Cellphones are more expensive to call and it’s more challenging to get the right people in the right gerrymandered House district. Getting those people is going to be a continuing challenge. Ultimately, I think we will migrate to Internet-based data collection. We’re sort of in that phase now that polling was in the 1960s, when we were migrating from door-to-door to telephone data collection with all the same kinds of concerns back then. Not everybody had a telephone at that time. Not everybody has a computer now believe it or not.
We’re in that transition, but we’re still in that phase now where we have to get an increasing amount of our data from cellphones and that’s difficult and expensive to do right. And then getting the sample right is another issue. We had huge disputes in our business this past fall about what the sample was going to look like. And if you make assumptions about the sample based upon things that have happened in the past that don’t follow through, then your numbers are going to be of.
Rowley: If money is no object is there a blend of online, cellphone, telephone poll that you would do?
Ayres: Right now we would do at least 30 percent of our calls from cellphones, but that’s going to have to increase because literally every year you’re going to get a higher proportion of cellphone-only voters.
C&E: How quickly is this digital shift happening?
Devine: I don’t think we’re there yet. I’m glad I’m not 20 years old and doing this. But I don’t think it’s going to change that quickly. I still think television is a dominant force in our culture. It’s a way that people consume information routinely. I don’t think it’s an accident that the presidential campaigns spent so much of their money on television. That doesn’t mean they weren’t communicating in other ways, but there’s now so much money that they’re able to do all the things they want. If you had $100 million to run a general election, you can’t do as much.
Innocenzi: I think the answer depends on the demographic. Maybe the digital guy is right when you’re talking about reaching the 18-35 year old voter. But when you’re talking about a Republican primary base that’s older than dirt, television is still the predominant way to reach them. If it didn’t work, campaigns wouldn’t be spending all this money on it. That’s not to say that the trend isn’t pointing toward digital. I think it is. But you just can’t ignore television. It’s the same for radio. You know, everybody seems to forget about radio, but when you go into rural states it’s a huge component of a media mix.
Rowley: What’s the real legacy of Obama’s campaigns? I think it’s a fully integrated campaign: monster television spending with early, definitional TV, an online component and field. As far as the whole digital-versus-the-media guys dynamic, ever since I got into this business it hasn’t been an either-or proposition. You need to run a fully integrated campaign.