Dr Whit Ayres is a leading Republican political consultant and pollster.
He ran Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander’s 1996 Presidential primary campaign, and has run winning campaigns for Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and former Tennessee Senator Bill Frist. Dr Ayres is the President of the American Association of Political Consultants, and a frequent commentator for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Fox, NPR and CNN.
We spoke in the meeting room of his firm Ayres, McHenry and Associates in a quaint brownstone townhouse in Alexandria, Virginia – a short drive from Washington D.C. Our interview was during the 2008 Presidential primary season after Mike Huckabee’s win in the Iowa caucuses and John McCain’s New Hampshire and South Carolina victories – decisive votes in Florida, New York and California were just days away.
John Barron: I’m imagining a scenario where a Governor or Senator comes to you a couple of years out from a Presidential election year and says ‘Whit, I’m thinking of running for President’- what do you say to them - what do they need to hear at that moment?
Whit Ayres: The first thing I’d say is; ‘why in the world would you want to do a thing like that?’ – It is an extraordinary and excruciating marathon for the people who want to do that, and I worked with Lamar Alexander in 1996 - who went very far into the Republican primary process. It’s a matter of figuring out a strategy that will get you known to enough people in the key states to give you a chance.
Some people start with national name recognition; Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain were all national names before they ever began running for President in 2008. Some people like Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee were virtually unknown of their home states and the political community. So the strategy varies dramatically depending on who the candidate is, what their positions are and what their strengths are when it comes to selling their message to Republican or Democratic Primary voters whichever the case may be.
John Barron: What does it take if you have a candidate who hasn’t got national name-recognition but they are a good candidate?
Whit Ayres: The traditional way to do that is to do very well in early states; Jimmy Carter was unknown outside of Georgia when he did very well in the Iowa Caucuses in 1976 and that’s what started this emphasis on the early states – the Iowa Caucuses and the New Hampshire Primary. That’s what Mitt Romney did this year  – he invested an enormous amount of money building and organisation, building name-recognition in Iowa and New Hampshire. He ended up coming in second in both states which a lot of people read as a poor performance given the amount of money he had invested and the amount of money he’d poured in to those states. On the other hand, nobody knew him before, at least in Iowa, and coming in second has kept him on the radar screen for Republican Primary voters – that’s the traditional way to do it if you are not well-known.
John Barron: He [Romney] outspent Huckabee by a factor of ten-to-one in Iowa – why was Huckabee able to do so much better with so little compared to Romney?
Whit Ayres: Mike Huckabee is a wonderful retail politician. He is a superb orator. He can speak to people’s hearts; he can reach into their hearts and grab it. He has used his rhetorical skills and his ease in one-on-one politics to great advantage in Iowa. There are relatively few people who vote in the Iowa caucuses – at most 100,000 for one party. That’s a tiny number given the number of voters in America. So he [Huckabee] used his political skills to go around and speak to people and then energise people who think like him – small groups like home-schoolers and religious conservatives – and he used the churches as a network to build an organisation and he used his rhetorical skills to energise people to get out to vote for him. That’s something you can do in Iowa that you can’t do in California or New York or Florida. So Iowa was tailor-made for him and his skills and he ended up defeating a man who spent far more money than he did. That can happen in Iowa.
John Barron: Huckabee and Romney spent a lot of time and effort on Iowa in this cycle, the national frontrunner at that time Rudy Giuliani decided not to. He made a few appearances... but why did he choose to largely ignore Iowa?
Whit Ayres: Rudy Giuliani was in a very different position from either Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney in that virtually all Republicans around the country knew who he was before he started. So he decided to take an unconventional strategy; basically downplaying the early states and focussing on the later states that have an enormous number of delegates – he’s going to make his stand in Florida on January 29th, followed by the huge states that vote on February 5th. He was in a position to do that because he was so well-known after his leadership on 9/11 – we’ll see whether that works – right now it looks like a pretty shaky strategy because he’s been out of the news for the month when everybody has been talking about the Republican nominating contest. On the other hand, if he wins Florida then he’s right back in the middle of the race.
John Barron: So it’s possible what happens to Rudy Giuliani in Florida will determine how people see the importance of early states like Iowa...
Whit Ayres: That’s exactly right. If Rudy Giuliani wins Florida and goes on to win the Republican nomination it will seriously downplay the power of the early states like Iowa and New Hampshire. Indeed for all those people who chafe at the influence of Iowa and New Hampshire the best thing they can do is nominate Rudy Giuliani.
In the 2008 Florida primary Rudy Giuliani came third behind John McCain and Mitt Romney, deprived of his springboard into Super Tuesday, and facing a loss in his home state of New York, Rudy quit the race and endorsed McCain.
John Barron: Is it possible for you to say whether those early states where you don’t need Rudy-kind of money to win – do they serve a constructive purpose or do they distort the process in some way?
Whit Ayres: There are arguments on both sides – there is a case to be made, and I think it is a very compelling case – that Iowa and New Hampshire are small enough so that people can meet candidates, talk to them, size them up one-on-one. It is not at all unusual for a primary caucus-goer in Iowa or a primary voter in New Hampshire to have met each of the main candidates three or four or five times. That’s something that could never happen in a large state. On the other hand there is a case to be made that they are very unrepresentative states as for reflecting the demographic diversity of the United States. They are overwhelmingly white, they are overwhelmingly middle-class, they don’t have anywhere near the demographic diversity that is reflected in a state like Florida or California – so some people argue that they are not good laboratories – particularly given their disproportionate influence in affecting the outcome.
John Barron: Let’s get back to that hypothetical candidate who has come to you and said: ‘I want to run.’ This candidate is now running they are finding themselves in a tight race with three or four potential nominees – what do they have to do to rise above the pack?
Whit Ayres: There is no cookbook for running for President. The number one most important element of a candidacy is the rationale for why people need to vote for a particular candidate rather than his or her competitors. Developing that rationale is something people in my business help with; what’s the reason for voting for Rudy Giuliani rather than John McCain or Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee? What’s the most compelling rationale and how does that rationale fit in with what the Republican primary electorate wants in a nominee? So it a combination of personal attributes, leadership ability, strength, character, and rationale or issue-positions, coupled with what the electorate wants. Right now the Republican primary electorate seems to be struggling with what they want and they have potential nominees who have very different rationales; Rudy Giuliani is very strong on national security and his record in New York, Mitt Romney has taken fairly traditional conservative positions after having held fairly moderate or liberal positions only a few years earlier (as Governor of Massachusetts), Mike Huckabee has a very strong appeal to conservative voters on a values message, John McCain has great strength when talking about national security and military affairs. So the Republicans at this point have dramatically different rationales for their candidacies – which is one of the reasons why the race is still wide open.
There is another as well, which is what you’ve done in the past. You can’t just turn your back on your past. And the problem Mitt Romney has had is that he was running for Governor in the most Liberal state in the Union; Massachusetts. And now he’s running for President in the conservative party. So on a number of issues he is now taking positions that are more conservative than those he held two years ago – and that’s opened the door to people saying he’s flip-flopping, he being too calculating – we’ll see whether that criticism sticks.
John Barron: So it really matters if these things are seen as truly-held beliefs rather than just being the result of a focus group of poll which says here’s the stance you should take to be elected...
Whit Ayres: Exactly, and that has created doubts about Governor Romney’s sincerity – I don’t doubt his sincerity, but some do – and we’ll see whether he is successful at alleviating those doubts. If he’s not then he won’t be the nominee.
Mitt Romney reached the top of a national opinion poll among Republican Presidential candidates just two days before the Iowa Caucuses, where he came second to Huckabee. John McCain’s win in the Florida primary gave him momentum heading into Super Tuesday on February 5th, 2008 and Mitt Romney withdrew from the race having won a total of 11 state primaries and caucuses.
John Barron: Can we talk about the politics of the South? It’s being said that South Carolina has emerged as ‘the Iowa of the south’ and that whoever wins there from both parties could end up being the nominee – how has that come about?
Whit Ayres: That role emerged back in the late 1970s and early 1980s when Carroll Campbell, who was the governor, moved the state up earlier in the [nominating primary] process. He then, along with his political team helped Ronald Reagan win the South Carolina Republican primary in 1980. He also helped Bob Dole win the South Carolina primary in 1996 and George Bush win it in 1988. So the South Carolina primary has come to be seen as the gateway to the south and the gateway to the nomination. This year South Carolina is playing a little different role because of the large number of candidates who have done well and the large number of states following with a large number of delegates; South Carolina is playing the role that the Iowa Caucus used to play – that is, winnowing the field rather than telling us the nominee. We now have fewer candidates as a result of the South Carolina primary but there is no definite assurance that the winner John McCain was going to be the Republican nominee.
McCain’s victory in South Carolina was a blow to Governor Mike Huckabee’s, who finished 3.3% behind in second place. Senator Fred Thompson came in a distant third and withdrew from the contest. McCain ultimately kept South Carolina’s perfect record of voting for the eventual Republican nominee each time since 1980 intact.
John Barron: A look at the electoral map – the red and the blue – to an outsider it’s rather confusing because it seems at some stage in the last 40 years the country kind of flipped over and that the once-blue [Democrat] states of the South are now solidly [Republican] red – how did that happen?
Whit Ayres: Before 1960, very few blacks had the right to vote across the south. The Democratic Party was dominated by conservative white southerners and the ultimate winner of an election was decided in the Democratic primary [because Republicans had been out of favour since the civil war]. But in the 1960’s as a result of the Voting Rights Act a lot of blacks started to register and vote in southern elections. Black southerners and white southerners had very different opinions on the role of government, the level of taxation, the role of welfare, the death penalty – a whole host of issues separate black southerners and white southerners. And that’s why it was very difficult to keep those two groups in the same coalition. So as a result of black registering and voting in the Democratic primaries a number of white southerners became Republicans and that trend has been going on for forty years. That trend is accelerated by the economic development of the south.
Two of the great scholars – Merle and Earl Black – talk about interstate Republicanism; that is, you follow the growth of Republicanism in the south they follow the interstates [highways] because they connect the urban areas and give you an indication of where there is the most growth. So to go along with the racial implications, you had a lot of white and blacks becoming more middle class living along the interstates and as they became more middle class they tended to vote more Republican as middle class people have throughout American history. So you had these two forces of race and economic development that have lead to the south becoming overwhelmingly Republican now. Conversely, the north-east, which use to be more Republican has become heavily Democratic – so we have had a complete flip in the regional bases of the two major political parties in America. Today the south is the largest region in the country and the most Republican and the critical base for the Republican Party in America.
John Barron: Can you, as a pollster, determine the point at which a campaign hasn’t got a chance of taking off or gaining any traction – does there come a point at which you have to say ‘that plan we had is not happening’?
Whit Ayres: I am very reluctant to write-off a candidacy prematurely. Last summer John McCain was written-off for dead; he was done, he was bankrupt, his whole staff left – everybody was writing him off. So I am very reluctant to write-off a candidate prematurely. On the other hand, there are some measure which, if they are consistent over a number of polls would indicate a very poor chance of a candidate to win – having more people think negatively about them than positively, having a job-disapproval number substantially higher than a job-approval number for an incumbent, having a small percentage thinking the incumbent deserves to be re-elected – all of those are indicators. Generally is you take a snap-shot you don’t automatically have a chance; you say ‘you have to work on these’. But if over a period you are unable to move those numbers substantially and then their chances of winning a very slim and sometimes you have to go to them and say ‘this isn’t working’.
John Barron: Finally I’d like your thoughts on the idea that any American child can grow up to be President – is it a reality?
Whit Ayres: It’s a fundamental part of the American dream, and the American ideal that any child can grow up to be President. The fact that Barack Obama is a serious candidate for the Presidency of the United State reinforces that dream. This is the son of a white Kansas woman and a black African from Kenya – normally the thought that that kid could be President of the United States would be dismissed out of hand. And yet he is not only a candidate for President he is a very serious, very credible candidate for President of the United States – that’s a good thing for America. I don’t share his party and I don’t share many of his political beliefs but I think it is a good thing for America that Barack Obama is a serious candidate for President.
John Barron: Is it a bad thing if he’s not elected – does it say that America is not ready yet?
Whit Ayres: I don’t think that Barack Obama is not elected it will be because of his race. It will be because of his inexperience; he does not have very much experience that’s relevant to the job – a point that Hillary Clinton makes at every opportunity. The fact that he might not make it this year as a young man in his forties with very little experience says nothing about his potential to make it in eight years – John McCain looks like he has a very good chance to be the Republican nominee after having lost eight years ago, and John McCain is a lot older than Barack Obama. There will be many Presidential elections, one hopes, in Barack Obama’s lifetime, and if he loses this year it will be written up much more to inexperience than race.
John Barron: Thank you.
Whit Ayres: OK.
While the Republican Primary race effectively ended on February 5, 2008 - Super Tuesday, the Democratic primary contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton continued until June when Clinton suspended her campaign. The “inexperience” criticism of Obama seemed to matter less and less as he came to represent the ultimate “change candidate”.