Mike Murphy has been at the forefront of Republican consulting for strategy and media. He has taken part in leading more than two dozen gubernatorial and senate campaigns, including elections for Senator John McCain and Governors Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and John Engler. Murphy’s most recent political undertaking has been leading Right to Rise, a super PAC for Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign. Murphy also serves on the University of Chicago Institute of Politics’s Board of Advisors, and was an IOP Fellow this spring. The Gate’s Danielle Schmidt sat down with Murphy on May 18, 2016, to discuss the 2016 presidential election and the role of money in politics.
The Gate: Each of the Republican candidates you have worked for has been incredibly different, in personality, experience, the campaigns they were running, etc. For instance, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jeb Bush are two vastly different politicians. What draws you to the candidates that you work for?
Mike Murphy: Early in my career, it’s like being a doctor: you just want to operate. Later, when you have some skills and become more in-demand, you get to be a little choosy. I prefer non-grievance-oriented candidates who weren’t running about what they hated, and instead were running on a path forward. I like reform-minded conservatives, and I like pragmatists. So I find myself doing a lot of governor races. For Jeb, I did his two winning governor’s campaigns—there were three since he lost the first one. For Arnold, I did the recall in the governor’s race as his political advisor. And I did a lot of others: John Engler in Michigan, Christine Todd Whitman in New Jersey, Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, and Mitt Romney in Massachusetts. Governors can get stuff done, and they tend to be a higher level of political animal, so I just gravitated towards those sorts of races. But I also did a lot of senate races, don’t get me wrong. I like conservatives with an agenda, a propensity to work, and who deliver some kind of result.
Now Jeb and Arnold were different: Jeb is an introvert, Arnold is an extrovert; Jeb is a policy wonk, Arnold is a reformer. But Arnold kind of had a secret life where he was more interested in policy and the wonky stuff, even though it just wasn’t in his perceived image. Florida and California both have their similarities: they’re both mega-states and enormous, big enough to be a country. And that made for very interesting politics. Both Jeb and Arnold are sunny personalities; they’re optimists about the future and want empowerment politics. Jeb is to the right of Arnold, ideologically, but they had similarities in how they saw politics as a tool to move ideas forward to reform and improve things. They were similar, even though they were very different public personalities.
Gate: From a strategy standpoint, why did you decide to focus on the other candidates, instead of attacking Donald Trump, at the beginning of Jeb Bush’s primary race?
Murphy: Well, there are a couple of things. I wasn’t really running the Bush campaign, I was running the Bush independent super PAC. So, I was blessed to have a lot of resources, and a big volume on my microphone, but we didn’t control the candidate, which is the biggest message delivery system of all. In the beginning, Trump’s portion of the vote, which was only 20 percent, was locked into Trump and wasn’t going anywhere. We knew from our polling that if those voters went anywhere else, they would never go to Jeb. Trump voters hated Jeb, and Jeb voters hated Trump. So our competition were the other votes in our half of the primary: Rubio, Walker, Kasich, and Christe voters. We were competing in that pool of votes of value to us.
I’ve been massively misquoted in an article that Trump is other people’s problem, but what I meant was that he was Cruz’s problem because they were competing for the same voters. In the part of the article that is never quoted, I say that later in the primary, once we had narrowed our half of the votes and gotten past Walker, Rubio, and Christie, then we would have had to fight Trump. In the end, we spent more money as the Jeb Bush super PAC attacking Trump than any two of our opponents combined. I believe Jeb also deserves a lot of credit. He was the only candidate to systematically take on Trump early and often. It didn’t work, the primary voters wanted Trump this year. His lane got bigger and bigger while our lane got smaller and smaller, and we did not prevail in our lane. But to spend Jeb Bush money fruitlessly attacking Trump only to move voters to Cruz, and a little bit to Marco, would have been a criminal waste of money.
Now, if I were head of the RNC and had a hundred million dollars, and my job was to protect the interest of the party, maybe then I would break one hundred years of tradition and jump into the primary and let the party attack Trump. But my job at the super PAC was to help Jeb Bush, it was not to go to serve the other campaigns by attacking Trump. The one thing I regret is during the rise of Trump, I wish I had said, “Okay, thirty-million-dollar Cruz super PAC, twenty-million-dollar Rubio secret dark money fund and ten-million-dollar super PAC, five-million-dollar Christie super PAC, why don’t we all put up a million and run an anti-Trump ad together? I’ll throw in two million. I’ll double whatever you do, Marco.” But at that time, they were all kissing up to Trump, while Jeb was taking him on. I don’t think any of them would have done it. So, I think it’s a bullshit criticism, and it was basically manufactured by the Rubio guys who didn’t like the fact that we did spend money attacking Marco. Now Marco spent millions attacking Christie, but somehow that was okay. I don’t know why he didn’t spend that money on Trump!
My short answer is, my job was to help Jeb and beat our competitors in the bracket before we got to Trump, and that’s where I spent the money. We prevailed over Walker and Christie. We left Kasich alone, which was probably a mistake, but he was like the third guy in Survivor who gets to the top three because he was never real. By the time we started really going after Trump, we still hadn’t put Marco away. In hindsight, I wish I had spent more hammering Marco; he got a little too far in South Carolina. By the way, that was the unanimous view of the seven or eight very seasoned consultants who worked for Right to Rise — it was a team decision.
Gate: Right to Rise raised an exorbitant amount of money for the Bush campaign.
Murphy: Just about one hundred and twenty million.
Gate: That’s incredible.
Murphy: It was hard work, by the way. That was a campaign in itself. The donors who gave us money, they met with Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, and Ted Cruz, but Jeb won because they thought that he was the president. They thought he was the most capable guy for the job. I’m proud of it. It was an election in itself. We had over ten thousand donors. The average donor gave us the equivalent of a car. Most of the other candidates had one donor giving them five million bucks.
Gate: At the same time, you didn’t see the traditional amount of return from that money. It didn’t seem to get Bush’s message out nor help in the polls. Trump, on the other hand, only spent a fraction of what the Bush campaign—and all the other campaigns—spent, and is now the Republican nominee. This raises the question of whether money was even a factor in the Republican primary race this year. What was the difference in this campaign?
Murphy: This is a frequently cited argument: money no longer works. But like with most things involving money, it’s an accounting trick. There’s a pretty fair analysis now that shows that Trump got seven times more cable TV coverage than any other candidate. It was worth over two billion dollars. So, we had a hundred million, but he had two billion. Second, Trump is what the movie people call a “pre-aware title.” He was already famous. He’s received billions of dollars of press coverage in his life. In his financial disclosure form, on which under legal penalty he must make his best estimate, he values his brand at four billion dollars. It’s an interesting presidential race because we have two of the biggest pre-aware titles: Clinton and Trump. Jeb was a bit of a pre-aware title because his last name is Bush, so we had some of that benefit, but we weren’t the same. We weren’t Iron Man. We had some overshadow we had to spend our way out of in order to create Jeb’s own identity.
There’s an assumption that election results are driven by money, but it’s not really true. Money buys you publicity and the ability to make an argument. We made a long, loud, and ubiquitous argument. The market just didn’t want it, and we knew that: we weren’t idiots. The voters said yes to Trump. Now we’re going to have a disaster: we’re going to lose forty states, we very well may lose the Republican senate, and we will cut our house advantage down to single digits. We have a candidate so vile, unqualified, and odious that a guy like me who has spent thirty years working out of shitty Holiday Inns in Kansas to elect Republican governors, congressmen, and senators for my entire professional life is not going to vote for him. I’m not going to vote for that guy. And about twenty to twenty-five percent of Republicans feel the same way. So the primary voters have the right to burn down the party, with a plurality of votes, by the way, and not a majority.
I don’t regret that we lost on our principles. I would feel much worse if I spent one hundred million with ads of Jeb beating up Mexicans, calling for walls, and doing all the Trump shit that might have worked. We had a secret little dinner when Jeb was deciding [if he was going to run] and we all guessed a number of what the percent was that we actually win the nomination. We knew it was uphill. None of us had a number higher than forty percent. Jeb’s number was the lowest of the group, but he said that he had to make the case. In case-making, you don’t look for a return on equity. We failed, but we’re all sleeping pretty well at night. Jeb never said anything I have to apologize for. Trump is a daily embarrassment to my party and the country.
We’ve examined this a hundred times and come up with thirty things we could have done differently, but still would have lost. Fundamentally, the [voters] didn’t want a non-grievance candidate. None of the non-grievance candidates did well; they all got wiped out. We just sent out over twelve million dollars in refund checks. Our refund expenditures were bigger than any of the other candidates’ cash on hand, because we held money back. Am I heartbroken that we lost? Of course I am. I think Jeb would be a great president. We would be in a lot better shape now as a party if he were the nominee. This year, [voters] wanted grievance, and they got it.
Gate: Super PACS have notoriously been blamed for much of the problems with campaign finance over the years, but Bernie Sanders has made Citizens United and big money in politics a focal point of his campaign. He claims that super PACs give a wealthy, minority class a larger role than they deserve in deciding who gets elected. However, money has always been important in campaigns.
Murphy: Money speaks—there’s truth to that.
Gate: You were in politics long before Citizens United. How has the political arena changed with its passage? Is there a significant difference?
Murphy: Yes. There’s a very lazy cliché about super PACs, which says, “The problems in politics are not your fault, voters. It’s not your fault that most of you don’t bother to vote in primaries. It’s not your fault that a huge number of people don’t even bother to show up for the general election.” Trump will say that there’s an evil Mexican rapist coming over the border to take your job. Or the Chinese who trick us in trade treaties because Carl Icahn isn’t there. Or the Ford Motor Company which dares to build parts in Mexico. Bernie Sanders says that the problem is Wall Street stealing all our money so we can’t have free college. Super PACs are rigging the system. Everybody is the victim. Trump and Sanders are the same: they’re in the victim business. It’s an easy thing to rail against. The truth is people don’t like money in politics because it gives them an easy way to corruption.
When I ran campaigns, I didn’t really like independent groups because I couldn’t control what they said, yet I was held accountable. If a stupid independent group does something stupid like put a dumbass ad on the air, and I’m held responsible for it, it’s like throwing a turd into my punch bowl. So, as a control-freak political consultant, I don’t like some of that independent stuff because I find that it’s not very professional and I’m in the worst possible position: accountable, but without control. On the other hand, it was sometimes a good thing, when labor was spending millions of members’ dues money without permission to slime us, for a third party to come in and fight back. So sometimes for the asymmetry of it, especially when it’s the group attacking you, having your own special interest group coming in to help is a welcome relief.
I would prefer a system where there was no independent spending, just from a practical point of view. Constitutionally, I think the Supreme Court is probably right. But tabling that, I could take on unlimited contributions as long as I made them public within forty-eight hours. So everybody knew who was taking what money, and we could yell about that and Bernie could say that Goldman Sachs gives a lot of money to Hillary Clinton. But I’d have the money and a big market for my candidate, and then hold me accountable for what my candidate is saying. It’s simpler. That would not be a bad system. But the minute we allowed labor to take paycheck deductions and spend it on highly unregulated politics, where they do whatever they want with it and don’t ask the membership, and you open that gate, then you have to have symmetry to it. So it’s big, ugly, messy symmetry.
The last thing is, the media is incredibly lazy. The media covers politics like sports: conflict, coaches’ polls, scorekeeping. There’s no right or wrong, there’s no objective truth, it’s just scorekeeping. Money is an easy way to keep score. The truth of money, as an amplifier, is it has its limits. If you’re amplifying a message people don’t resonate with, money doesn’t mean much. Money buys opportunity, it doesn’t buy a result. What does happen, and this would bother me if I were a donor, and I talked to our donors about it, is when one side spends a million independently, the other spends two million. Two million, so three million. Those bastards have three million, so four million. Five million. It becomes an arms race to diminishing returns on the dime. I often use the analogy: what is more painful, walking outside and having someone drop a grand piano on your head from ten stories up, or walking outside and having someone drop two grand pianos on your head? My view is that you can’t tell the difference.
The reason there’s more money is not just the symmetry of both sides having more, it’s the ability to give unlimited money that makes it much easier to raise. It’s easier to raise super PAC money than hard money. Hard money is hard. With soft money, you can get two million bucks. Not easy, it’s a competition. Soft money definitely has limits, though, no doubts. You have Scott Walker who was starving to death because he doesn’t have enough hard money to buy an airplane ticket, yet has two million in the bank in soft money.
Gate: You touched on the similarities between Trump and Sanders, in terms of their supporters and voter ideology.
Murphy: There’s an old thing about the George McGovern campaign and the George Wallace campaign where the voters were similar, yet dissimilar. Dissimilar in ideology, dissimilar in demography, but similar in their high score of alienation from institutions. They don’t trust anything, everything is rigged. It’s a horseshoe theory. If you go to Bernie and sneeze really hard, you wake up with Trump on the other end. Although ideologically they’re different, demographically too—old versus young, college versus not college—they’re equally alienated. “Everything sucks and I’m the victim. Solve all my problems with the political problems.” Free college. Build a wall.
Gate: Both of their campaigns have been very successful, or at least more successful than originally expected. Is this a surprise?
Murphy: The only thing that’s true are the numbers and the numbers are basically demography, which predicts a lot, and public opinion based on demography. The problem we have is that we use the word “victory” in primaries. We should really use the word mugwump. “Sanders won a mugwump today.” The reason I say that is the media is now all saying, “Trump is a big winner, they love him in Connecticut!” The universe of the Republican primary is usually about twenty-four million total votes in the presidential race. This year it will be up around 28 million because so many people ran. The universe in the entire campaign is 127 million. It’s a totally different world in a general election. That’s what the media is missing. They think a win is a win. Yes, he’s winning a contest where he got ten million votes out of 26 million, but heading to a world full of the two groups that hate him the most—women and minorities—with 128 million people. So we’ll see how this works out, but there’s this wet-streets-cause-rain type of thinking in the media.
Gate: This goes back to our discussion at the beginning of how there’s always going to be a portion of votes you’re not going to get, and the votes you’re definitely going to get, but then there’s that huge middle chunk that’s anyone’s game.
Murphy: Demographically, Trump is working to offend those voters. 28 to 30 percent of the vote is minority. Trump is going to lose that by forty to fifty-five, maybe sixty, points. Of the remaining 70 or 71 percent, 36 percent are women and 35 percent are men. Trump is going to lose women. The question is how big. This is with white women. He’s going to win white men, but he’s not going to get Bernie Sanders voters. There are white liberal men, they do exist. So maybe Trump wins that group by 18 points. He still has a deficit in the other two groups of twenty. And what happens in politics is that things just come home to their natural pattern in the end. If you look at where Trump is going to land, unless Trump becomes dramatically a whole different type of person, which I would bet against, but he’ll lose.
Gate: On top of that, voter turnout in primaries is so low.
Murphy: I like to say that there are more minority voters—black, Latino, Asian, and mixed-race—than the total number of voters in the Republican primary. So you take every Republican voter, which Trump is only going to wind up with like 43 percent of at most, and take all those votes and add nine million votes. Then you have the number of minority voters. Trump is going from small time to big time.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
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.