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.
The group that we thought was the most important for us were probably women—independent, soft Democrat, soft Republican women who had voted for Obama four years ago and were open to voting for Romney. We thought if we could push those voters over, we had a real shot at winning. When you’re buying time for that demographic, it’s often the most expensive time. If I could have known how much money we were going to spend and could have done it all earlier, maybe I would have made some other decisions. But I’d point out that they spent more money than we did overall and got fewer votes than they got four years ago. Everyone else is trying to do more with less. That’s what we did. We did more with less.
C&E: Did it allow you to have a large enough media buying staff to meet the demand of the campaign?
Schriefer: Well, we had a large media buying staff. We had almost a dozen people. The other piece of the media buy—the whole compliance and accounting function—was also done in-house. If you have it done out of house, they’re cutting the checks so you have a whole staff that’s doing that. We had two people devoted to doing nothing but analytics. We had a meeting every day at 10 o’clock. We took a look at who was buying what and where. We took a look at what all the Super PACs were running. We had as much of an analytical database as we could afford at the time, and we had probably a dozen or more people doing nothing but the media buy.
C&E: Why was it so long before the campaign starting buying cable?
Schriefer: It’s expensive. It still costs more per eyeball than broadcast does. If you have the luxury of more money, then you start digging more into cable. But we were struggling just to get 1,000 points in some of these markets to compete with them on the broadcast buys and we made the strategic decision that it was better to spend our money on broadcast first. At the end, we were buying cable when we had more money. You have to remember that the best cable shows are only reaching a couple hundred thousand viewers and they’re charging a premium for those viewers, as opposed to what some of the broadcast spots are going for.
C&E: How quickly do you see the political media landscape changing?
Schriefer: It’s hard to say. The research shows that broadcast TV is still the most effective means of delivering a message. I don’t think that’s going away anytime real soon. Before you could just be on TV, but now you have to be everywhere. When people are watching something, they’re watching it on their smartphone or their iPad. So your delivery mechanisms are going to be much more varied. But there’s a big mistake people sometimes make when they have a limited media dollar. Some people think they can spend a little on TV, a little on Internet, a little on radio and a little bit on cable. They run that dollar so thin that they don’t get enough penetration on any one of them to make a difference.
C&E: You’ve worked for moderates through the years. Is there space in 2016 for a true moderate to emerge in the GOP primary?
Schriefer: The presidential primaries are a little like the NCAA brackets—candidates will fight within different brackets for a couple of months. The ones who emerge will face one another and we’ll see the direction the party decides to go. That being said, we have to be a party that is going to win in New England and the Mid Atlantic. We also have to figure out how to win on the coasts so that we can expand the map. If you look at what troubles me the most about 2016, it’s the idea that the map is getting even smaller for Republicans. Florida and Virginia will become tougher, and we need those states just to get us to a tie [in the Electoral College]. We have to figure out what other states we can win.
C&E: Do you have some favorite spots that you’ve produced?
Schriefer: I think you always have ads that are your favorite pets. There was an ad that we did for Tom Ridge back in 1994 that still stands out. He was in the middle of a frozen Lake Erie holding a sign that read, “The guy nobody’s ever heard of standing in the place nobody’s ever been.” It was just a fun ad to make, and we had to tell Tom Ridge, who was a congressman at the time, that he had to stand out in the middle of this lake in a bomber jacket holding this sign. In the end, it helped give Ridge an identity outside of just being a congressman. I think that’s one of my favorites.
And certainly the ad I did for Bush in 2004—the windsurfng ad. We were on the phone one day and someone just casually said, “We caught some footage of John Kerry windsurfng of the coast of Nantucket.” I immediately said, “Get me the footage. That’s an ad.” And it wrote itself. We actually did that ad in a couple of hours