Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
Q&A

Mike Murphy of Right to Rise Explains His Theory That Jeb Bush Is Still the Candidate to Beat

Donald Trump, Murphy says, is a “zombie front-runner.” And the punditocracy pays much too much attention to polls. Part one of a frank Q&A with the man who runs Bush's super-PAC.

When Mike Murphy in June took the helm of his longtime friend and client Jeb Bush’s super-PAC, Right to Rise USA, he disappeared from the media, part of a concerted effort not to draw attention away from the candidate. In mid-August, Murphy—a witty narrator of presidential politics who has also guided campaigns by John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Arnold Schwarzenegger—broke that uncharacteristic silence. “If other campaigns wish that we’re going to uncork money on Donald Trump, they’ll be disappointed,” Murphy told the Washington Post in August. “Trump is, frankly, other people’s problem.”

The rare on-the-record remark from Murphy was widely assumed to be a signal to Bush’s Miami-based campaign of his group’s strategic calculations. And it indicated an election season already straying from BushWorld’s well-laid plans. When Murphy was detailed to the super-PAC, he knew he would be unable to communicate directly with Bush or the candidate’s circle. But the deliberate six-month project to build a mutually dependent structure, in which the two entities could work in tandem without violating prohibitions against direct coordination, had taken place in a Trump-free environment.

The political landscape is now very different. After four months of Trump’s dominating both news coverage and polls, advisers to Bush—at least one of whom anonymously promised a “shock and awe” launch of his candidacy—find themselves where they never expected to be: struggling to reach fifth place in many national and early-state polls. Earlier this month, Murphy welcomed Bloomberg Politics’s Sasha Issenberg to his corner office in an unmarked suite in a Los Angeles office building for a candid and wide-ranging conversation about the super-PAC’s activities, plans, and the newly critical mission it has taken on: the Committee to Save Jeb. (Editor's note: Their conversation was edited and condensed for clarity and readability. Read part two of this interview, published Oct. 21, here.) 

You've kept an uncharacteristically low profile thus far this year. 

I'm busy. 

Why are you willing to speak on the record now? 

Part of our mission is to communicate to our supporters what we're trying to do, so we thought it would be good to kind of go through our theory of the race in a more distributed way. 

RNC 2012
Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Mike Murphy speaks during a panel discussion on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, on Aug. 26, 2012.

Are you worried now that your supporters don’t understand, or have confidence in, your theory of the race? 

Well, no, I think our supporters are on board and actually excited about it. What I find is we're in this funny casino of the pre-season now where the complete sum of pundit knowledge in this race, with a few rare exceptions, is based on national polling that in my view is completely meaningless. Every debate, for a week I hear, “This is the most important debate of the campaign,” until the next debate. And there are going to be 11 of them. Every poll is the most important, everything is do-or-die. And while that hyperventilating analysis has some impact in the donor world—witness the Walker campaign—our strategy is to actually peak on the voter's timetable. And so we always make sure we want to get our theory of the race out there so people understand how we see it. We don't even do national polling, we've done one national poll in our whole history here. We think it's a total waste.

You’re obviously more sanguine about Jeb Bush’s prospects. Explain to me why.

I’ve worked for him for 18 years. I know he builds slowly and gets better and better. You saw in the debates, the second debate was strong, he'll continue to improve, he's doing well on the stump now. He can outlast the noise, his candidate performance will be excellent, and we're an amplifier. Our job is just to amplify his story and what he's saying and we banked enough cash that nobody's turning our speaker off. And we're the only campaign in that situation and I think we are the campaign who can consolidate the winning largest lane in the party and do so in a way that can win the general election, which I think is unique only to Jeb. And if you look at the prediction markets overseas, which are kind of interesting, because that's the one place real money's involved, we constantly rank number one. The smart money's figured this out. What hasn't figured it out is the day-to-day cable punditry—but that's OK, that'll follow reality. So our job is to be tuned into reality and let that stuff catch up eventually. That’s kind of our theory.

Has the tempo of the race been different than what you had anticipated when you first developed a campaign plan?

Well, I knew it would be kind of hyper because that’s the business now. But one thing in hindsight is we got this paper crown of front-runner early that we didn’t want and I don’t think realistically we should have had. Because what happens is when the punditocracy says, “You’re the front-runner,” then they take a bunch of meaningless polls and a Donald Trump or a Kardashian or whatever jumps in and they say, “Now you’re not the front-runner.” So they put you on trial for them being wrong at the beginning. I think we’re getting a little bit of a bad rap on all that stuff but, you know, who cares? We’re going to power through it.

But the pledge of “shock and awe”—your side contributed to that front-runner designation. Things haven’t quite worked out that way.

I’m going to hunt down whoever came up with that. The bigger story was: we showed a lot of financial strength but we always said the voter strength would build slowly because we had to go tell the story. And somehow the punditocracy said, “Well, financial strength means you have to lead every poll and if you don’t you’re a loser.” I think them being wrong about that is something that we’ve been held accountable. I don’t take it too seriously because I keep saying I think the polls are completely meaningless on a national basis, but it’s irritating noise.

One day after Jeb announced his candidacy, in mid-June, Trump got in. I assume you hadn’t anticipated what that would do to the campaign.

I don’t think he’s been particularly good for the process, he's trivialized it. I remember working in foreign countries in the past where like the beer brands would each run a candidate for president as a marketing gimmick. I thought “God, I hope this never comes to us,” because it just makes the election kind of a cheap card trick. And here we are.

How has Trump’s entry changed the race?

It created a false zombie front-runner. He’s dead politically, he'll never be president of the United States, ever. By definition I don't think you can be a front-runner if you're totally un-electable. I think there's there an a-priori logic problem in that.

Has he been dead since he got in?

I think so, yeah. So there's no meaningful outcome to it. But the question is what kind of catalyst is it? It's a huge amount of noise and so we're trying to find the signal in all this. You've seen Trump start to drop now. I think it'll be a very slow drop, but I think he'll continue to drop and the question is: is he ready to lose primaries, will he stay in? And nobody knows the answer to that.

So if his collapse is inevitable, have you been able to discern how his support disperses?

Yeah, I think in his lane the guy with the most opportunity will probably be Cruz. Voters have some resistance, it seems, to go to Cruz, there's something there they don't like, but in that lane I would think he'd have the opportunity. Walker tried to get into that business and got squeezed out too early to really know, but if I had to make a hypothetical I'd probably guess that. But we think it's a minority lane, so a lot of what we want to do is consolidate the regular Republican, positive-conservative lane. That means the real competition from our point of view, the main competition over the long run, are we think weaker candidates in our lane that we can overcome. There are people we have respect for, but there's Governor Christie, Senator Rubio, Governor Pataki, Governor Kasich—that's the vote we'd like to consolidate. Carly Fiorina pulls a little from both sides, probably more in our data from the other lane.

You were quoted in the Washington Post a couple of months ago saying, Trump is “other people’s problem.”

Oh, I'd love a two-way race with Trump at the end, yeah.

I assume thus far Trump has crowded out free media for some of the other candidates who could have emerged in your lane.

Yes. I think you can argue it’s been good for us in that it’s cut off oxygen to guys who can’t survive. We have an oxygen tank. I think Jeb is built from atom one to lead the positive conservative primary and I think that's the ticket to win. Now if there's been some huge categorical change in the party and the party is completely obsessed with a grievance candidate they can get one. You know, it's possible: we lose 42 states, it'll be Republican McGovern. But I think that's unlikely. Not impossible but unlikely. 

Are you worried that if one of what you call the positive-conservative candidate becomes the nominee, he will be tarnished by association with Trump?

I think the fact that you win against all this noise… If Jeb wins, the swing voters will see, Oh, guy who’s not mad at everybody won, that’s good, so I don’t think Jeb will have a hangover.

The general election head-to-head polls don’t necessarily show that now—sometimes, in fact, the opposite. I realize they’re not particularly predictive of what will happen next November, but do you worry that, from a message perspective, there’s not a lot of public evidence you can show voters to support the contention that Bush would be a stronger nominee than, say, Trump or Carson?

No, because nothing changes like momentum from polling. I often joke that if I ever had the horrible, malicious job of being Head of the PRC's Intelligence Service and they said, “All right, here's $20 billion, screw around with the U.S,” one of the first things I'd go do is bribe media pollsters. because you totally control the thinking of the D.C. press corps based on polls. Right now, if four polls had come out saying Trump at seven and Jeb at 29, all the media commentary—without either guy changing a thing they're doing—would be the exact opposite. Well, Jeb's low-key style is clearly resonating with voters, it's exactly what people are looking for, I can just hear it now. Well, Trump's bombastic style clearly has backfired, we could see… And by the way, the same people would be totally comfortable completely switching their opinions in a minute because most of them are lemmings to these, in my view, completely meaningless national polls. Because there's no test to be a pundit. You know, it's not a certified business.

So when and how does that consolidation take place?

Well, that's what the primaries are for, but the calendar's changed a little bit. We only have 10 pure winner-take-all states now. The Republican Party, we used to be the Social Darwinists: second place got you a Greyhound ticket to Palookaville. Now we're proportional, mostly by congressional district. From Feb. 1 to March 15, we have a bunch of big states; Ohio, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina probably. [Looks at primary calendar/map on wall of office.] I think my map's out of date now, I'm not sure we got North Carolina moved. So you've got this 45-day blitz of a tremendous amount of number of delegates being chosen, mostly—not all, as Florida's winner-take-all—but mostly in a heavily proportional system.

During that period, you expect several candidates to be clumped together as far as delegates are concerned.

Yeah, for a while, for a while. I mean February's not really about delegates, it's about media momentum.

When do you expect that to change?

March 15 is the big day. On the 16th, I don't think anybody will have a mathematical lock, but there definitely will be a very strong leading candidate.

You’re describing a scenario where a candidate who has never finished higher than third or fourth in any particular state could still be the leading candidate on March 16?

Right.

Is that a problem from a media momentum perspective that if you're not actually winning stuff and getting the coverage that comes along with being a winner?

It would choke out a lot of little guys. If you're big enough to have resources to keep going then you're going to be covered that way. I think you might see, and this is a total guess, as something analogous to '92 where Clinton had the lead but because of their proportional system, Jerry Brown could hang in and kind of nip at his heels. Everybody knew Jerry Brown was not going to be the nominee but Jerry Brown's incentives were to kind of keep campaigning anyway—to keep his whatever he had afloat, keep the turtleneck shirts on television—and get all the way to convention. You could have an also-ran kind of scampering along who might have their own political-machine reasons to keep in, to keep raising some money. But I think there'll be a fair amount of clarity in the race, if not certitude, after the 15th, that's my best guess.

I’ve thought perhaps the smartest single thing the Obama campaign did in 2008 was, starting with Nevada, to drive media attention to the delegate count as the measure of success. Obviously it’s a little different because superdelegates play such an important role in the Democratic nomination that they don’t on the Republican side. It sounds like you’re counting on media coverage each week to be driven by the total delegate count rather than the outcome of individual state contests.

Yeah, I don't know if I care. Ultimately delegates is the reality. My guess is story in February is this has been the winnowing of 25 candidates, now we get to the real deal in March, which is the delegate race and that can go on for a while.

But Jeb could be in a strong position after the 15th, even if he hasn’t won anything before March 1?

Well, I don't want to play the hypothetical game.

I think we’ve already started playing it. In terms of how you're describing the physics of this race, it sounds as though you believe it’s possible that somebody who finished, say, second, third, or even fourth across the first four states could still do very well on March 1 and have a resource advantage to leverage on March 15.

I think with a big caveat. Somebody who in February was in the top three or top two over the three big contests and had resources to get a message out could still compete strongly if they have a bunch of resources in March. We have a holistic approach: we don't have a big iron-curtain wall between February and March. We see Feb. 1 to March 15, 45 days, as our period to seize the nomination and get in front—and there are a lot of states and a lot of congressional districts and a lot of targeting to that. One of the reasons we've worked so hard and Jeb, frankly, has inspired so many people to donate to us is so we have the resources to pursue that campaign. Most of these other guys are all running on spec. We're at a point now where we're significantly funded for those 45 days, cash in the bank today. Nobody else is in that situation in this race. Nobody's close.

So the money that you raised in the final quarter of this year would be augmenting your existing budget over those 45 days or building for the post-March 15 calendar?

That's a little proprietary to us, but some of the new money we raise this year will still go to our 45-day plan. We're basically funded for the whole thing but there are areas. I’d like to be better funded for the contest on the 15th, I don't feel fully funded there. There’s definitely more money we could raise and we'll raise money more next year as we peak and succeed.

You haven't mentioned anything beyond March 15.

We've got a good idea of the calendar but the pace slows down quite a bit. My guess is, this might be the one where different people keep winning different primaries, though I doubt it. The system is built to not really operate that way, and you guys are built to kind of kill everybody but three, the media. And so I doubt we'll have that—you know, out of nowhere Huckabee wins the Arizona primary—but we have to be prepared for that scenario. My guess is we'll have somebody who's in an extremely strong position after the 15th, and there will be two others claiming mathematical viability. Those will be underfunded guys, and a lot of money will flow to the leader—unless the leader's an unelectable grievance candidate. Then there'd be no money at all, just massive depression among the pragmatic wing of the party that knows that we just give Hillary the White House for free. I think that shadow of thought will loom larger and larger as we get to January.

What does all this mean for your plans until then?

We're very focused on March. We're going to start buying March television time very shortly because we think we have the resources to do it and that's an advantage we want to have. So we're building the obvious strong effort in February that everybody's building but we're also building a March effort that's not built on speculation. For most of these guys, it’s: Well, lightning's going to strike, Jindal-mania is going to hit the New Hampshire primary, I'm going to win and I'm suddenly going to turn around a ton of money and then I'm going to run the momentum all the way through March. Here's the problem with that: let's say it's the 10th of February, you have won the New Hampshire primary two days ago. You're only 20 days out so you should be on the air already.

Twenty days from the southern states.

March 1, yeah. And so how do you turn enough money on to actually get on the air fast enough to have an impact? Well, what does 1,400 points—decent, well-targeted points—cost in the March 1 states? About 26 million bucks.

That’s the cost over three weeks?

A 10-day buy. And doesn't count an absentee ballot program, it doesn't count digital, which ought to be millions of dollars. It doesn't even get into the inventory issues you might have. It doesn't count what you might do with field in a super-PAC, which is a problematical area but there are things you can do. So it could easily be a $35 million price tag for guys who are going to come out of the New Hampshire primary dead-broke. I mean I could make some pundits very happy by pouring a bunch of money on national television now and we get a bump in the polls, but I think that's a fool's errand because best I know there's no election next week. We're planning to peak at the right time and then be able to sustain through a very expensive string of primaries.

But you have been running ads in New Hampshire, right? So you clearly have been trying to move opinion there.

Oh yeah, in the early states we're on, we're on significantly and we're going to stay on all the way. We're not going off the air with the holidays, things like that.

If you’re effectively willing to concede wins February and early March to focus on a delegate-centric long game, I assume you make different decisions about resources. This seems especially true in states where they are allocated proportionally by congressional district, where you could decide it’s not worthwhile to run up the score in the statewide popular-vote total and instead target districts where you can efficiently pick off a marginal delegate.

Yeah, there are congressional districts with 4,500 Republican primary voters that have three delegates.

So we should expect that your media buys reflect a strategy to maximize your delegate performance there?

I would say we're optimizing our entire campaign, our independent operation, to not only cover the most efficient places, but use our financial resources to go on offense some places where other people can't afford to play.

Such as?

Well, I don't think any of our competitors are going to have $20 million for television alone, plus a couple million more in mail and a couple million more in digital for the March 1 states. What a lot of them will be doing is saying, “Hey look, we can go on here in the Wichita Falls media market in Texas and it's really efficient to get the three delegates.” Well, be there but we'll also be in Dallas and Houston so we're going to go wide.

When you were saying “we,” is there a difference between the “we” that describes the super-PAC as opposed to the whole pro-Jeb operation?

I'm talking super-PAC “we” because I go to jail if I know what Miami will do. But they watch our buys, they know what we're doing.

But when you were saying that February's going to be more media-momentum driven, it’s also more candidate-centric in that a campaign can move him around some of these smaller states to drive free media. That’s much harder to do when the race spreads across the March states. Is there a natural division of labor that follows, in terms of whether the campaign or super-PAC should do the heavy lifting in each of those month?

Well, there's no rule, there's no plan, except the reality is… A good example is Illinois, a particularly tricky state to file delegates in. The campaign's all over that; we can't do much to help there. Miami is clearly doing an excellent job, I think they've got their delegate slate completely figured out. The other guys have a well-intentioned state rep or two driving around with a kid trying to figure it out. You've got to have both strength as a candidate and you've got to have campaign resources to do it.

This amounts to unfamiliar posture for you on a presidential campaign, right? When you were John McCain’s chief strategist you could never be so cocky about the resources.

With McCain in 2000 we had $40 so it was all about picking one battlefield. That’s why we didn’t go to Iowa. McCain was very comfortable in New Hampshire, so we thought it would be best parking there and trying to break the juggernaut, which we were able to do. The challenge we had with limited resources was scaling up into a lot of other states. The worst experience in the world in the campaign is to do well in February and then compete in a bunch of places where you cannot afford TV but your rival can. That is a horrible place to be and I’d like to be on the other side of that equation this time.