Joe Trippi, a chief Democratic political strategist, is known for significantly influencing the way media is used in political campaigns. Trippi is currently a political contributor at Fox News and was most recently a Winter Fellow at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics. The Gate’s Riddhi Sangam sat down with Trippi to discuss his career in politics and how media has shaped political campaigns.
Gate: Tell us a little bit about how you started working on political campaigns?
Joe Trippi: I was an aeronautical engineering major at San Jose State University in Silicon Valley, and I kept trying to figure out what was going to change people's lives or make a difference more: technology or politicians. So you know, is the mayor going to do it, is the president going to do it? Or is it going to be the cell phone? So I had those two things always going on. Probably not unlike a lot of students here [at the University of Chicago] who are interested in both what their concentration is, but also something else. And I ended up choosing politics and got involved in campaigns and trying to change things that way.
Gate: ou have worked on many international political campaigns, including Tony Blair's and the Papandreous' campaigns. How is working on an international campaign different from working on a domestic one?
Trippi: It's not really that much different. No matter where you go in the world, it turns out people care about the same things. Do I have a job? If my child gets sick, am I going to be able to get them healthcare and see a doctor? Am I safe? And that can range from am I going to get burglarized, or is the country next door going to invade us? The only thing that's different is the order [of priorities]. And the order can change even within the country. Here, three days before 9/11, the economy was first and safety may have been fifth. And all of a sudden, 9/11 happens, and safety—am I safe?—goes to number one, and the economy—do I have a job?—drops down. But, what is different is the order may be different here than it is in Nigeria. But the Nigerian citizen wants to make sure their child is going to be able to see a doctor, that they have a job, that with Boko Haram, they feel safe that somebody's doing something about it. I was really surprised by how much it is the same.
Gate: So in 2010, when you worked on Governor Jerry Brown's campaign in California, you received a lot of attention for the ads you produced. It's safe to say that your ads on that campaign shifted the way media is currently used in political campaigns. Can you comment on the way ads are being used in the current presidential election and also, how do you think technology as a whole has reformed the way political campaigns are run?
Trippi: Everything's changing. The technology is changing not just the way we communicate but who has power in the society. You know, the power to communicate to lots of people used to be in the hands of only the very wealthy or the very powerful. And what I mean by that is, for example, Coca Cola runs the ad and it tells you [what to buy]. And you had no real effective way to influence that. So technology—the cell phone, smartphone, the Internet, social media—is not just changing the way we communicate. You have a lot more power, so if the hot new movie comes out and four of your friends email you telling you it sucks—it's the worst movie they ever saw, don't waste your money, you do not want to go to this thing—it no longer matters how many millions of dollars the movie studio is spending on ads on TV telling you it'll be the greatest movie you ever saw. Guess what? You're not going. So four friends on email are now destroying multi-millions of dollars of propaganda from the movie studio. And that's the same with the campaign. So that's happening in our politics. And it means that the TV consultant who's making the ads doesn't have the same power and influence that they used to have. It doesn't mean that the TV ad doesn't have power, but it doesn't have the same amount of power. That's why a guy like Jeb Bush and his super PAC can blow a hundred million dollars on TV ads and nothing happened. I mean, not one thing. He attacked Rubio when Rubio did better than him. You know, he would say he was great, nothing moved. So I do have to say, you don't see a ton of creativity this cycle—ike the will.i.am video that happened for Barack in 2008… I mean, people like me had that idea, like, twenty years ago, you know, it's like, "Okay, somebody finally did it." So I'm not -- it was a nice ad, I mean, it made you feel good, but I'm not sure. I'm not putting anybody down, I haven't really noticed something that -- the will.i.am video made -- I mean, you knew something different had happened, that's all I'm saying. And I haven't seen any that made me feel that way yet this cycle. Doesn't mean it won't happen, but you'll know it when you see it.
Gate: So you've worked on political campaigns since the 1970s. There are definitely a lot of new tactics being used this time. What do you think the effects of those new tactics will be on politics as a whole?
Trippi: You know, I think we've kind of hit a stasis, where there really isn't a whole lot of new [tactics]. It's just perfecting stuff that either happened or was kind of invented in 2004 by Dean or in 2008 and 2012 by Obama. Now everybody else is just trying to do it over, thinking, "This worked for Obama, so let's do that and try to make it a little better.” I'd say just along the same thing I said about the creativity: I haven't really seen a whole lot of new tactics. I think the one that bothers me the most is that there are two ways for this all to go: one was the original Dean and Obama campaigns of 2004 and 2008 that really took technology and tried to use it to empower people. And then by 2012, we'd already started to use it to manipulate them the way TV is. Now we can micro-target you and use data to know exactly where we're gonna try to reach you with exactly the right message that we know you wanna hear. Because of the data that we have. Whereas before—I mean, I'm talking about the earlier stages of this, 2004 and 2008, it really was the "Yes we can, you have the power, yes we can." Not just the message of empowerment, but the technology and tools were being used to put in your hands so that you could be the one to spread the message that built the campaign that carried it over the finish line. We're still doing that, but now, the innovation that bothers me is the whole reason I wanted to do that—the whole reason I started to do this in 2004 was to reach beyond the power of that damn TV box. Because it was so manipulative. And so I wanted to build a campaign that empowered people. And guess what? It’s now full circle. Most of the innovation and new tactics that are being used aren't one more cool step to really empower somebody. It's now back to using TV to manipulate you. Now we're going to use your mobile phone and your data to manipulate you. I'm not saying there hasn't been innovation, I'm just saying, for me, it's going in the wrong direction.
Gate: Whereas with the 2008 Obama campaign, the media seemed more hopeful. And you said that it used the same tactics on TV, but—
Trippi: —Do you know who Willie Horton is? In 1988, Michael Dukakis was up by a zillion points over George H.W. Bush. The Bush campaign, or the PAC that was doing Bush's stuff, put an ad up with this shot of the scariest-looking black guy you've ever seen in your life. And his name was Willie Horton, who had been in a Massachusetts prison, but had gotten out on a weekend work release and murdered three people. [The ad suggested] it was all Mike Dukakis's—the Democrats'— fault because he was the governor of Massachusetts when this happened. That ad destroyed Mike Dukakis. He lost tons of states [as a result]. . . But what I'm saying is that now we're right back [to this type of ad]—we've gone full circle. It's just a new medium to nuke the other guy with, and we do it better because we can target the ads more. It's more efficient, it's easier to get you.
Gate: So you're currently a commentator on Fox News, a network that is considered to be very right-wing. As a Democrat, how do you fit into that frame?
Trippi: Everybody's got their bias about how they view [Fox News] so here are the basic facts. At any given moment, about two million people are watching Fox News. At any given moment, about four hundred thousand people are watching CNN. And at that same exact moment, maybe six hundred thousand people are watching MSNBC. So you have a million people watching MSNBC and CNN combined. You have two million people watching Fox News. Both Pew and the Nielsen's ratings produce studies that estimate that thirty percent of Fox's audience is made up of Democrats. So, let's just do the math. Two million people watching Fox and thirty percent are Democrats. That's about six hundred and fifty thousand people. So, if MSNBC has six hundred and fifty thousand total people watching them and let's just argue that all six hundred and fifty thousand, every single one of them, is a Democrat. There are six hundred and fifty thousand Democrats watching Fox, and six hundred and fifty thousand Democrats watching MSNBC, which is not true, because there are some Independents, but let's just say that. Then, let's argue that some portion of that other seventy percent of the Fox audience are Independents. I'd ask it the other way: Why the hell don't we have more Democrats talking to the biggest audience on cable television, where we know that roughly thirty percent of that huge audience are Democrats, probably not the liberal Democrats that may be watching MSNBC or something else, but exactly the kind of Democrats that probably are producing swings in some of these states like Virginia and other states? So that's where you talk to them. And where do I fit in? I try to talk to those people and to the Independents. Look, I think we have to make our case to Republicans, and a lot of them won't hear it because it's coming from a Democrat. As soon as they see Joe Trippi, this crazy liberal Democrat, some think, “I'm not listening to him.” That comes with the turf, but I'm still gonna try to make the case. I think people make mistakes on cable all the time by going on and screaming at the other guy and insulting him and the audience. I don't think I’m going to get any of those people, even the Democrats who watch Fox, to come to my point of view by insulting the audience or my fellow colleagues who I'm on the show with. So, I just don't do that. There are a lot of progressives out there who think, "You know, I saw you on that show. Why didn't you just spit on 'em? Why didn't you yell at 'em?" And it's like, what the hell is that gonna do? I think more Democrats should be on Fox, and more Republicans should be on MSNBC. We should be making our cases regardless of what we think the audience is. I think it's a mistake for more Democrats not to be on Fox.
Gate: Do you have any plans to continue working in political campaigns?
Trippi: I do campaigns now. I'm running Ro Khanna’s campaign out in Silicon Valley. I do campaigns all the time. I just don't do fifty thousand of them.
Gate: Do you plan to do a bigger one, like on the scale of Howard Dean?
Trippi: Look, the only thing I do now is I get to work for who I want to. If it's really interesting, for example, if Governor Jerry Brown had run for president this cycle, done. I would've been doing somersaults down the street and working for Brown and being all excited about it. But you know, it's got to the point where unless it's a very interesting campaign or it's somebody I am attracted to and energized by and want to work for, I'd rather do things like this.
Gate: Do you have any advice for students who would like to go into politics?
Trippi: Get in the campaign. Don't wait. This is a great year. There are all kinds of presidential things happening. Pick your side. It doesn't matter whether you're Republican or a Democrat and frankly, there may even be an Independent at some point this year. The only way to advance in politics—and the greatest way to advance—is to learn by doing. Certainly finish your degree. But this summer, especially if you're in between years, spend this summer on a campaign. If you're graduating this year, and [politics] is what you want to do, get involved on a campaign right away. You will not get promoted faster in any other industry on this planet than in politics if you're good. I started out as a $15 a day organizer, and in that same campaign, I went from a $15 a day county organizer to running a state and then to being the floor manager of the Texas and Utah delegations at the convention. By the end of it, I was a salaried state director, and I was running the state of California in the general election. So start out running a county in Iowa, and then end up running the state of California in the general. That's how fast [campaign work moves]. If you're up to it, they will keep promoting you. You get promoted to the level of your competence fast. The other thing you need to find out is do you really want to do it? You'll know real quick because of the pressure and the craziness of the campaign. That either is going to be something you thrive on and relish, or it'll crush you and you won't want to have anything to do with it. So, my advice would be jump in the pool.
Riddhi Sangam is a third-year Economics major. This past summer, she interned with Rutberg & Company, a boutique investment bank located in San Francisco. On campus, she is a Research Assistant at the Becker Friedman Institute and is also a member of the Women in Public Service Program.