Governor Tom Vilsack was the first Democrat to declare he was running for the Presidency in 2008. A close friend and political ally of the Clinton's, Vilsack had been on the Vice Presidential radar of both Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004.
He announced his candidacy for the White House in his mid-western home state of Iowa in December 2006, and was coming fourth in early Iowa polls, yet pulled out of the race just two months later, citing difficulties raising enough money to stay in what was already a highly competitive campaign for the Democrat's nomination.
Vilsack then became National co-chair of Hillary Clinton's Presidential campaign, and after Obama's victory in November 2008 Vilsack accepted his invitation to become the US Agriculture Secretary – a position he still holds today.
I spoke to Tom Vilsack in the summer of 2007, after he'd pulled out of the race for the White House and was campaigning hard to win Iowa for Hillary Clinton – she ultimately came a disappointing third in the Iowa Caucuses behind Obama and Senator John Edwards. Obama's campaign manager David Plouffe has since said the Iowa result was crucial to their ultimate success.
Vilsack's experience, and that of Republican Mike Huckabee in 2008 suggests the path taken to the White House by Obama and other long-shot candidates back to Jimmy Carter, may soon be blocked.
John Barron: Governor Vilsack... tell us about the decision-making process – running for President – when you say this is something I want to do, this is something I can do, this is something I'm going to do...
Tom Vilsack: When you make this decision, it's not a decision you come to easily. You have to recognise that it is a gruelling process to go through – running for President – it is a process that involves your family, it involves media taking a look at virtually every aspect of you past. So it's a very difficult decision that the candidate makes to do this. I think you have to have a very clear understanding of what you want to do with the job and how you want to impact the country and the world with the job, and if you don't have that clear understanding then you shouldn't be running because it becomes very obvious early in the process that this is an individual who wants to run simply for the sake of running.
You know the interesting decision on the other side is how do individuals make a decision to support a candidate – and that is as varied as there are people. There some people that decide on an issue – someone who hears a candidate speak on a particular issue – Iraq is a particularly good example – they gravitate to a candidate because of a particular issue. Some people gravitate simply because they like a person – they get an emotional reaction a response to the candidate and some like the idea of supporting an underdog – certainly in the Democratic Party that's a prevalent feeling, and so people look for the candidate that is maybe not as well-known and they decide to support that candidate. And some, it depends on who their friends and neighbours are supporting – people that they trust locally that they look to for direction and assistance – so it's a very interesting dynamic.
Barron: So, you are the Governor of a State and you decide, Okay, I'm going to do this. Who do you call, what do you do?
Vilsack: Well the first thing you do is sit down with your family and make sure that they are committed to this – as you can see from the current list of candidates, spouses are very important to a campaign, and they have to be just as committed as the candidate – in some cases more committed because they have to not only campaign but they have to take the emotional stress of seeing someone they love dearly being attacked or criticised – and that's not easy to do. If you have children your children if they are adult or near adult age they have to be involved in this decision because their lives are impacted by this decision as well. So that's the first step.
The second step is to work out whether you are going to be able to raise the resources – and unfortunately in our country the cost of Presidential campaigns has gotten to the point where the cost itself is a limiting factor in terms of who can run and who can successfully run. You have to have a group of individuals who are committed to helping you raise resources – these are individuals who go out and not only write a cheque themselves, but have friends, business acquaintances, friends, neighbours who themselves will also write cheques – part of the challenge with campaign finance laws the way they are set in this country today, no individual can write more than $2300 of support for a candidate. If you have to raise $50 or $60 or $100-million depending on what estimate you want to look at – and you divide that by 2300 and you've got to have a lot of friends. And a candidate who is not as well-known or who has not got a sense of charisma that the media attaches too – it's very difficult, because you have to personally go out and convince people to write a cheque and have them go out and convince their neighbours to write a cheque for someone they have not heard much about – so it's difficult if you don't have resources.
Barron: How important in the process, in those early stages, is the media and getting coverage when you trying to build a campaign from a fairly small beginning?
Vilsack: It's vital (laughs). Because it's funny, people are willing to contribute to a candidate they know, or a candidate that they think is going to win, or a candidate that they see a lot of. And if you happen to be a candidate that is not as well-known then the key challenge is to get better-known. The key challenge is to convince media to cover you - that's not easy to do because the reality is that the media has limited resources and so they can only cover so many candidates. And so if you have twelve candidates in the race, and the media folks have resources to cover three or four and there's an initial process in some newsroom somewhere where a decision is already made for the people of this country as to who is likely to be a candidate.
And the decision goes something like this; what do the polls show? Well early polls basically show name-recognition; people who are better-known, people who have been out in the political process for longer periods of time – so they register higher on the polls. Funders looking for people likely to win – people putting resources in - look at the polls as well. So you've got the media and the money looking at the early polls and so it makes it very difficult for someone who is at one percent or two percent to get better-known.
The only way you do that is have the process start in early states where traditionally it's not taken as much money to launch a campaign and then you hope that you do well enough in the smaller states to begin getting attention. A good example of that recently on the Republican side was Mike Huckabee's second-place in the [August 2007, Ames] Straw Poll – that got him, I don't know, several million dollars worth of free publicity – he was on the Sunday shows, he's now mentioned with Mitt Romney, he's lumped together over the course of the next couple of weeks as someone who has done well in the Straw Poll – that allows him to go out and make the case that he's the dark horse, he's the person that resources should go behind because he's the one who may surprise people. Now that will take him up to the caucus, if he places second again then he is a story and the resources will come in – but the key is having enough money to get to that stage.
[Indeed after his surprise second place behind Romney in the Ames Straw Poll in August 2007, Huckabee went on to win the Iowa GOP Caucuses in January 2008 and become a serious contender for the Republican nomination. It also badly dented Romney's chances. Yet while Huckabee was the last major challenger to John McCain's eventual nomination, the former Arkansas Governor failed to turn electoral support into significant fundraising support as the GOP establishment fell in behind McCain.]
Vilsack: The other problem is that now the [primary and caucus] calendar is so condensed – these large states like California, Florida and New York moving up [holding their primaries earlier, closer to Iowa and New Hampshire] it isn't enough to compete in those early states, you now have to have the resources to be able to set up a campaign structure in those large states and have enough money for a media-buy in those large states after those small-state caucuses and primaries. It's tough, very tough.
Barron: Tell us about your strategy and how you envisaged being able to use your recognition and support base in Iowa and the role Iowa plays in the process to break out of that Catch-22 of polls, money and media.
Vilsack: Well the interesting thing about my candidacy was that I was placed at a disadvantage by a poll. An early poll here in Iowa put me at fourth among some of the better-known candidates. That is not surprising, because sometimes it's hard for people in a small state to perceive that their governor, someone they know very well, could possibly be considered as the next President of the United States. It's very hard for them to accept that. So that early poll made it very hard for me to convince people outside of Iowa that I was going to do well in Iowa.
But our strategy was simple; it was to build a base of operation and support based on the fact that Democrats – people who will go to caucuses, these are hard-core people – that those people would know me and those people would support me and that I would do better than anticipated and expected in the Iowa Caucus because of that low poll rating and use that as a way of encouraging people in [second state to vote] New Hampshire to also be supportive and build momentum. The problem was that the big states moved up and it became obvious that there wasn't going to be enough time between Iowa and New Hampshire and the large states to take advantage of a victory in Iowa and a good showing in New Hampshire.
Barron: So at that point the people who were making donations are suddenly not returning your calls?
Vilsack: Well, they were always very polite, and they were always willing to write a cheque – what they weren't willing to do was convince their friends and neighbours to write a cheque. I mean I will never forget going in to a Hollywood movie producers' office, a very well-known movie producer and I made my case why I thought I would be a good candidate, and he looked at me and said "well you're just terrific, I'd like to support your effort, I think it's important to have many voices in this campaign, here's a cheque for [the legal maximum] $2300 but I should tell you we're having a fundraiser for one of your opponents tomorrow and we're going to raise $1.3-million."
So I was able to secure a single cheque, he was able to put together a group of his friends and neighbours to raise $1.3-million for someone I was competing with – it was fairly obvious that I wasn't going to be able to close that money gap. And as I result, I could have put together a great operation in Iowa, but I wouldn't have had the ability to put together a great operation in Florida and New York and Texas and California. So I made the decision to leave [the race] and then it was a fairly easy decision for [his wife] Kristy and I to support Senator Clinton – for a multitude of reasons – some of which is that I think she is the best candidate in this race today to lead our party and our country and she was also a very good personal friend of ours. So a combination of friendship and being convinced that she's ready to lead and to change this country made it easy for us.
Barron: I'm interested in that meeting with the movie producer in Hollywood; because it seems in a way what you and the other candidates are doing is very close to an open audition to see who is going to be president.
Vilsack: Well it's a job interview in which you potentially have as many as 150-million people taking a look at your credentials and trying to decide if you are the kind of person who could be President. What's interesting about this process is the role that the popular media plays – we've talked a bit about the opinion-makers – Tim Russert, George Stephanopoulos - who do the Sunday shows and the cable shows – but then there's a whole different other group of popular media types – Jay Leno, David Letterman and Jon Stewart – these are individuals who have shows that people watch, and so if you can get on one of those shows and take six minute or ten minutes or eight minutes or whatever they give you, it really helps a campaign.
So in our circumstance, when I went on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart – I was the first Presidential candidate to do that – well that really legitimised me in the eyes of the people in Iowa. When I went on Jay Leno on The Tonight Show that really legitimised me – and it's a little frustrating because you spend eight years governing a state, improving the economy and expanding access to healthcare and making the schools better and that doesn't count for much, but you go on national TV for six minutes and now all of a sudden you are capable of running the country.
That's a problem for us in this country...
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