Patti Solis Doyle, former campaign manager for Hillary Clinton, was the first Hispanic woman to lead a presidential campaign. Currently, she is a CNN political contributor, president of Solis Strategies, cofounder of the Vendor Assistance Program, and a Winter Fellow at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics. Hispanic Business Magazine named her as one of America’s “100 Most Influential Hispanics.” The Gate’s Danielle Schmidt sat down with Solis Doyle to discuss her career in politics and the 2016 election.
The Gate: How did growing up on the South Side of Chicago shape your decision to go into politics?
Patti Solis Doyle: I grew up on the Southwest side in an area called Pilsen, which is basically the “Little Mexico” of Chicago where most Mexican immigrants came to. We grew up very poor and didn’t have a lot—I had five brothers and sisters. My parents have a very powerful but common story: they came here with nothing but a third grade education, worked really hard (sometimes two or three jobs at a time), and raised a family. Because we grew up where people didn’t have a lot, our neighborhood was often forgotten. My oldest brother, Danny, became a community organizer when he was in his early twenties; he’s sixteen years older than I am. He really organized our community to advocate for itself, to get better healthcare and better schools. He was very inspirational to me. So when I graduated from college, he took me to rallies, door-knocking, and canvassing. He took me into people’s living rooms to hear what they were going through. That’s what got me going and wanting to get involved. And I did; I worked in local politics here in Chicago before I went off into national politics.
Gate: Turning to the topic of your Institute of Politics seminar series, I think it is safe to say that the 2016 election year has been unusual and eventful. We have seen a different sort of candidate take the lead in polls and a strong display of frustration among the American people with institutional politics. Although outsider candidates have been successful within their parties, do you think their electability is feasible in a general election?
Solis Doyle: It is. I’ve been in politics for a really long time, almost thirty years, and I’ve never seen the electorate this angry. Elections and campaigns are always about change or something new. I grew up in Chicago politics, and there’s always this mentality that when someone’s been there for a term or two terms and the people aren’t happy or the economy isn’t going great, there’s this “throw the bums out” attitude. We need change, we need newness. When it comes to presidential politics, it’s very cyclical. If you have two terms of a Democratic president, odds are, folks are going to want to elect a Republican; two terms of a Republican, odds are, folks are going to want to elect a Democrat. If you go back historically, that’s been the cycle. But this time around, people are just angry with everybody and everything having to do with institutions of any kind, whether it be banks, Wall Street, or the government. They’re just so angry. So at this point, I think just about anything could happen. At this point, I think Donald Trump could be president. People are so angry, which is why you see Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders being so successful. They are anti-establishment—their whole message is “fight the man, beat the man,” and they’re winning. So I think that given where the electorate is, it’s very feasible. However, another role in politics that has serious impact is money. Resources, operations, and campaign strategy plays just as big a role in electing somebody for president. And if you look at it through that lens, people like Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio are just more experienced in that aspect of politics. So it’s hard to predict at this point who is going to win the day.
Gate: Is this the beginning of a movement away from what we’d consider traditional candidates? How will this election change the way politics runs in America?
Solis Doyle: I think it’s definitely the beginning of a movement toward the way campaigns are run. For instance, and we’re going to talk about this in one of our seminars about communications, just the way candidates communicate has dramatically changed since four years ago. Donald Trump basically sits at his desk on any given morning, picks up the phone, calls five networks, and gets wall-to-wall coverage. That has never been done before. It’s incredible. He can drive the message of the day for both parties by sending out a tweet in the morning. So I think people like me—advertising gurus, political strategists, communications experts— will look back on this particular election cycle and really examine what worked and what didn’t work. The fact that Jeb Bush has spent more than fifty million dollars on advertising and is at the bottom of the establishment candidate race is just striking. When you put that kind of money behind advertising, it’s always been good for a two or three point jump, but it’s done nothing for Jeb Bush, which is just shocking. I think it is the beginning of a new way to campaign. I’m not smart enough to tell you how it’s going to play out yet. I think we have to see it run its course, but it will definitely and dramatically change the way we look at it.
Gate: You mentioned earlier that experience plays a big part in elections, but in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, you said that Bernie Sanders has “brought a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of excitement to the table.” How likely is it that this energy is enough to win the Democratic nomination?
Solis Doyle: Let’s take Iowa as a sort of case study. Obviously Hillary Clinton went through the Iowa caucuses once before in 2008 and learned a lot of lessons—so did I. We had a decent ground operation in 2008, it was a solid ground operation: seventy thousand caucus-goers caucused for Hillary Clinton. In any given traditional year, that’s awesome. But Barack Obama did something that was never done before—he changed the playing field to his incredible success. I still admire his campaign to this day for doing it. They figured out they weren’t going to win by just depending on traditional caucus goers, so they had to expand the field and bring in more caucus goers. We were all very skeptical. But in addition to having a great ground operation, he inspired people; he was just an inspirational candidate. In order to bring new people to the process, he inspired them to show up. So to answer your specific question with Iowa as a case study, Hillary has the experience because of having run and lost in Iowa, and in my opinion, you learn a hell of a lot more after losing than after winning. So she brings all those lessons to the table and is clearly incredibly well funded. Yet this seventy-four-year-old socialist could very well beat her or come in a very close second. The idea that she’s going to wallop him is just not going to happen anymore. It’s either going to be really close or he could beat her. He has no experience [in a presidential race] and just started raising a large amount of money. It’s all based on momentum, enthusiasm, excitement, and inspiration. So as a political person having gone through what I’ve gone through, I would take enthusiasm over organization any day of the week. And right now that is happening with him.
Gate: In 2008, you were the campaign chief of staff to Joe Biden. What are your thoughts on the importance of a strong vice presidential candidate, especially keeping in mind the sort of influence Sarah Palin had on John McCain’s campaign that year? Can the vice-presidential candidate make or break a general election bid?
Solis Doyle: As a campaign staffer, which I am, you want a couple of things from your vice-presidential pick. You want someone who can bring you what your existing candidate doesn’t already have, whether it’s a strong outreach to a specific swing state that you need, like Florida or Ohio, or in Hillary’s case, because she has experience, qualifications. She’s an older woman, so we’re looking for somebody who is maybe younger, maybe is anti-establishment, a man, and who fills a constituency gap she doesn’t already have (although, she has a lot of constituencies on her side at this point). You’re looking for someone who balances the presidential nominee out, and you’re also looking for someone who is not going to screw it up. You’re looking for somebody who’s a good candidate, who doesn’t make mistakes. It’s a very short window of time, three months, and you don’t want them to screw it up. If you’re the candidate, if you think you’re going to be president of the United States, you’re looking for somebody who can actually do the job if you can’t do it. There are a lot of different things to juggle, and that’s why you usually have an entire operation devoted to selecting the vice-presidential nomination. They have to go through vetting. Also, will they get along, and can they build a relationship in a very short amount of time? Can they govern together? So there are a lot of different things, and I’m sure everybody who’s running is beginning to think about it and look at it right now.
Gate: As someone who has been closely tied with Hillary Clinton through all of her major elections, what are the biggest differences you’re seeing in her approach to this current election versus in 2008 or her other campaigns?
Solis Doyle: The ground operation in Iowa is stellar. She’s taken a lot of the Obama people who worked in Iowa the last time around. Also she’s much more comfortable in the role. Like I said, you always learn more from losing than you learn from winning. She learned a lot of lessons in 2008. She wasn’t a very comfortable candidate back in 2008. This time around, she’s much more comfortable in her skin. I think the extra four years as Secretary of State have made her even more confident and just more zen, in terms of how she’s running. So I think she’s just a better candidate this time around.
Gate: Before joining Hillary Clinton’s campaigns, you worked on Richard M. Daley’s campaign for Chicago mayor. What importance does Chicago have in a national election?
Solis Doyle: It’s a delegate-rich state and a Democratic state. And Chicago politics has always been so incredibly rich and colorful. For me, I learned a lot of lessons in Chicago politics that I have brought to national politics. And that is fighting hard, sometimes fighting a little bit dirty, and loyalty—loyalty to your candidate and loyalty to your team. I think all those things resonate on the national level. In this race, for Hillary Clinton in particular, she’s from Park Ridge, a suburb in Chicago, and she’s got a lot of ties to Chicago, a lot of friends in Chicago. In 2008, we lost Illinois to Barack Obama, but what was special to me was that she won Pilsen, where I grew up. She won that district because Chicagoans are loyal. And it was a tough call for Chicago given their home Senator and their hometown girl. But Chicagoans are loyal so I think Illinois has a special place in Hillary’s heart.
Danielle Schmidt is a fourth-year Public Policy and Philosophy double major and Human Rights minor. Danielle has interned for a non-profit employment center on the South Side and a bipartisan advocacy organization for immigration reform; she served as a Field Director for an Illinois State Representative as well. On campus, she volunteers for New Americans and enjoys exploring the city with her cattle dog.