A formidable physical presence accented by ever-present cowboy boots and piercing blue eyes, it’s no wonder a man like Steve Schmidt is often tapped to be the lone Republican commentator on MSNBC. On a network well known for its considerable leftward slant and hostility towards Republicans, it makes sense that only someone as poised and confident as Schmidt would be up for the challenge. Schmidt doesn’t see it that way, however.
“From my perspective, the role I’ve played on television doing analysis of politics is...hopefully taking people behind the scenes and giving them some context to understand what it is that the two parties are fighting over… and what’s going on in the campaigns. So, what I’ve tried to do, particularly on MSNBC, is to have an approach that’s not dissimilar to a lot of the former professional football players who on Sunday are doing analysis [of the games]. I view myself as a conservative Republican who wants to win elections. We’ve gone through a tumultuous time in the Republican Party. I’ve not been shy regarding my voice and views about some of the dangers of going down the rabbit hole of following irresponsible leaders at an elected level, or of talk radio hosts who are self-aggrandizing, self-enriching, and doing great damage to our ability to compete and advance a conservative agenda in our country.”
Schmidt has been commentating on various news networks over the past few years, taking a break from the limelight after three consecutive election cycles working on high-profile campaigns, two presidential and one gubernatorial.
“There’s nothing like a presidential campaign. It’s the lead of the news every night and in every newspaper, not just in the United States but in the world. It’s an incredibly intense never-ending experience. You win or you lose. The intensity is extremely high...It’s an adrenaline rush. Every day you get up and you have a plan, your opponent has a plan. I’ve always analogized it... it’s as close as I’ll ever be to coaching a professional sport team or a big time college team, football or basketball program. You’re making hundreds and hundreds of decisions a day. You have decisions that are ultimately going to result in winning or losing. It’s very high stakes. There’s a lot of pressure and mostly I’ve been lucky in my career [because] I’ve gotten to work with some great people and interesting personalities, but [it’s been] a lot of fun. There are three [most memorable campaigns] all tied out. There’s the Bush campaign in ‘04, the McCain campaign in ‘08, and Schwarzenegger's campaign in ‘06. Those three will always be the most memorable.”
Schmidt has a lifelong love of politics and reminisced about his family’s political involvement from the time he was a boy. A friend of the family ran for councilman of Schmidt’s hometown of North Plainfield, New Jersey. It was there that he got his start in politics, passing out literature and stickers on election day. Schmidt’s interest only grew during his time at the University of Delaware, where he came upon his first paid job in the political sphere:
“I was the driver and travel aide [for B. Jerry Scott, a Delaware gubernatorial candidate]. When I graduated I was hired by the campaign for the sum of $600 a month. My parents were in disbelief that my first job was going to make $7000 a year after my college education had been completed.”
Most widely known for his career in presidential politics, Schmidt shifted gears after a successful 2006 gubernatorial race in California, which elected Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“After Schwarzenegger's campaign I was a founding partner on the west coast of a public affairs firm called Mercury. That firm eventually sold to one of the big advertising holding companies. When a number of the partners left I ultimately joined Edelman, which is the world’s largest global PR firm. I’ve been there for four years now and overwhelmingly we work with corporate clients and crisis clients on issues of reputation and image.”
While working in public relations does seem like a natural segue from the work Schmidt does on political campaigns, he’s adamant that there are distinct differences, namely, the intensity:
“That’s the fundamental difference when you’re working in the private sector. A communication issue could be terrible for the company, but in most instances it’s not going to be the end of the company. It might be the end of the CEO, it might be the end of people in the company, but there’s a big difference between that and [what happens in] politics. As a strategist [the major question is] how do you set the strategic direction of the campaign to get fifty plus one percent of the vote. As a communications specialist, which is the area that I come out of, [the question is] how are you dealing with the media. How are you dealing with all the forces that shape the narrative that’s going to determine whether you win or lose. How do you handle crises? How do you break through a message to the population who’s not really that crazy about politics? All of those things go into the job. It’s a lot of fun to work on these campaigns. It’s stressful, for sure. It has frustrating moments, but it’s a really interesting job to have.”
Schmidt is a hard man to catch up with, however he has shared with the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics decades of experience across the political sphere, having held jobs ranging from campaign strategist, TV commentator, and White House advisor. Schmidt spent the fall quarter of 2014 at the IOP as a Fellow. His weekly seminars, titled “Running for President,” brought the IOP livingroom behind the scenes to the chaotic inner workings of a presidential campaign.