2 Strategists Reflect On Presidential Campaign War Rooms
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Every once in a while, in the heat of a presidential race, comes a moment that upends politics.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: A shock to the nation's high court, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia...
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia...
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Justice Antonin Scalia has died at the age of 79.
KELLY: Just like that, the Supreme Court rocketed to the center of the campaign. Candidates scurried to stake out positions. Their advisors cranked out new talking points. And we got to wondering what that's like, and what life is like inside the war room of a presidential campaign. So we asked two veteran campaign strategists to drop by. Stephanie Cutter was deputy campaign manager for President Obama's re-election in 2012. Katie Packer held the same job, same time, for the Republicans and Mitt Romney.
Welcome to you both.
KATIE PACKER: Thank you.
STEPHANIE CUTTER: Thanks for having us.
KELLY: Katie, if you could lean down and whisper one thing into the ear of the campaign managers on the Republican side as this political landscape is shifting, what would it be?
PACKER: I would just say, don't lose sight of the bigness of this decision and of this moment. This justice was appointed by President Reagan. That's how long he's been around. That's the impact that he's had not just on the court, but on our country. And so in many ways, these decisions are much longer-lasting and have much more impact than the presidency itself.
KELLY: Stephanie, if you could lean into the ears of the strategists working Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders campaigns, what would you say?
CUTTER: Well, I think they're just about right. Now, they're in a different position, the Republican nominees. This is the president's nominee. And there are few things as important for a presidency than getting your nominees onto the Supreme Court because it is a - it impacts a generation or two.
KELLY: Now, I need to let people know that you both have some sort of stake in this campaign. Stephanie, you're a partner at Precision Strategies, which is advising Hillary Clinton's campaign. Katie, you just last month launched a new super PAC with the goal of taking down Donald Trump. And one of the things that interests me is that it is at its heart a destructive effort and not promoting one person's candidacy but blocking somebody's.
PACKER: Well, I don't know that I would characterize it exactly that way, that...
KELLY: How would you?
PACKER: ...The goal is to take down Donald Trump. I think that our goal is to just shine a spotlight on who he is and his rhetoric and the words that he has spoken, and say to people, do you really know Donald Trump? If you look at Donald Trump and you have all of these questions answered and you still support him, that's your prerogative. But I want to make sure these Republican voters actually know who it is they're getting - not just the guy who's saying something today, who's a little bit of a mirage, but they have all the information.
KELLY: And let me ask you both, when look at the changes, say, just in those last four years since 2012 - you know, from the growing influence of super PACs to the growing influence of social media - Stephanie, jump in here. For you, what's been the biggest shift in these last four years?
CUTTER: You know, every cycle is a step forward - if you want to call it a step forward - in terms of technology. In 2004, it was the first time we saw blogs play a role. And reporters did a lot of reporting based on blogs without fact checking because they were anonymous and it was virtually impossible to fact check. And in 2008, it was the ability to use email and texting to communicate through reporters to voters.
KELLY: Reach voters directly.
CUTTER: In 2012, it was Twitter, where narratives would take off on Twitter before anybody would think to fact check or do their own reporting. We saw that with the debate process, where narratives were set very early in a debate - in the first 5 to 10 minutes, before any news was really committed. And now we've got, you know, name-your-vehicle or your medium.
CUTTER: Snapchat, Instagram, Periscope where there are so many different pathways to get to voters or to set a narrative that it's almost uncontrollable.
KELLY: Let me ask you both - flash back to 2012 and this same moment in a heated presidential campaign. What was that like for each of you just in your life?
PACKER: It's hard to really break out a personal and professional difference when you're in the middle of a campaign like that because your whole life is the campaign. I mean, we started with meetings at 7 a.m. and I would typically, you know, get back to my apartment in Boston at 9 or 10 o'clock at night - you know, really just enough time to maybe make a bowl of soup and...
KELLY: ...Check your email again.
PACKER: Yeah, and then go to bed. And usually I was up in the middle of the night checking on things. So I can't say that I really had a personal life at that time (laughter).
KELLY: Stephanie, how about you? You were in the White House at this point in 2012.
CUTTER: No, I had just left the White House. I moved to Chicago for the campaign. We were in a different circumstance. We were the incumbent president. So our lives were full of planning, watching with interest and anticipation of what was to come. But Katie's right - these campaigns are really 24/7. There is no distinction between what your professional life is and what your personal life is because it's all the same.
KELLY: Either of you remember a particular moment that captures that intensity?
PACKER: Well, I actually remember a conversation with my mom where she said, it's very hard to talk to you right now (laughter) because there was just this sort of sense that I was never fully in the moment when it wasn't campaign stuff. I was always on my phone, paying attention, you know, with an eye on the TV, what's the news going on. You're in a lot of ways in sort of a bunker, and it can be very hard to communicate with people that aren't in that bunker with you.
KELLY: Let me ask you both to cast your eye down this road ahead towards Nevada, towards South Carolina, eventually to March 1 and Super Tuesday. One piece of advice that you would give to the campaign on either side - Stephanie, you want to take that first on the Democratic side?
CUTTER: Well, I think that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, you know, their strategies are pretty set at this point. So this will be a real test, I think, for both of the candidates to really demonstrate where their coalitions are.
KELLY: Katie Packer, what are your words of advice for the poor people who have succeeded you at running these campaigns on the Republican side?
PACKER: My advice would be to, you know, put down Twitter and try to not pay so much attention to all of the prognosticating that comes from these reporters covering the campaign. You know, focus on the stories that voters are seeing and worry about that, but don't focus on the inside baseball. You know, I remember in 2012 when we woke up the morning after Super Tuesday, and we'd won six of 10 states. We thought we'd done our job and woke up to all kinds of stories about what bad shape our campaign was in. And it's very demoralizing. And to some degree, you just have to run your own race, baby.
KELLY: Well, we thank you both for coming in today. Stephanie and Katie, thank you.
PACKER: Thanks for having us.
CUTTER: Thank you.
KELLY: That's campaign insights from Katie Packer, Mitt Romney's deputy campaign manager for the 2012 election, and Stephanie Cutter, who held the same job in the Obama 2012 campaign. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.