Mike Murphy: Rubio's Campaign is 'Cynical,' Kasich's Plays Close to the Line

Jeb Bush's super-PAC chief on campaign strategy and tactics—and, oh yes, on his competitors' shortcomings. Part two of a frank Q&A.
Photographer: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

This is the second part of Bloomberg Politics's interview with Mike Murphy. Read the first part, published Oct. 20, here: Why Mike Murphy Says Jeb Bush Is Still the One to Beat

Mike Murphy’s description of why Right to Rise USA is headquartered in Los Angeles—that “everything that happens first happens in L.A.”—could also be a claim for the primacy Jeb Bush’s super-PAC has assumed in his political future. (The fact that Murphy had been working in Hollywood, and living nearby, played a role in the siting, too.) As Bush’s campaign struggles to raise money, lagging behind rivals Ben Carson and Ted Cruz, the super-PAC is still the best-funded candidate-specific organization in American politics by far. By mid-summer, Right to Rise had raised nearly 10 times more money than the campaign itself, both emboldening Bush’s prospects and raising the question of which is the cart and which is the horse.

From a base not far from the La Brea Tar Pits, Murphy now sits at the center of a Right to Rise empire that includes several polling firms, including one established expressly for the purpose of supporting the super-PAC’s research. In Silicon Valley, former Republican National Committee CTO (and one-time Facebook engineer) Andy Barkett leads a team focused on building a data infrastructure to support the super-PAC’s operations. Around the country, Right to Rise relies on a network of fundraising consultants, all working on commission. They brought in just over $100 million in the first half of the year, and given the unlimited nature of super-PAC contributions can keep on going back to their most generous donors for more. (The super-PAC took in just over $100 million in the first half of the year; it will not have to report its finances again until January.) As a result, Murphy sits atop an unrivaled pile of cash that he argues will ensure that Bush remains able to weather his continued marginalization in the primary field, even through potentially dismal outcomes in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. (Editor's note: Their conversation was edited and condensed for clarity and readability.) 

We're now six months into this campaign. Bush is spending a lot of time in early states, he certainly dominated media coverage earlier in the year. Why hasn’t that “Jeb identity” gotten through to voters yet?

Mike Murphy speaks during a panel discussion on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, on Aug. 26, 2012.

Mike Murphy speaks during a panel discussion on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, on Aug. 26, 2012.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

There's been two weeks of TV in the early states and, in an IVR measurement of sentiment, he's rising. The campaign has been going on six months for the candidates, the finance teams, and you guys who have to report on it. In voter world, I think it's been going on for about three days. They've got their own timetable. What you have to do as a candidate is power through it all. The hardest part of this is not the campaign, it's the pre-season because the margin of error is in charge half the time. There was an NBC national poll out not long ago, and it had a 6.5 percent margin of error. It meant we were either at .05 percent and statistically we weren't even running, or we were surging into third at 15, both the same. So that turbulence does shake up the donor world of the lesser candidates and that's what killed Walker. I feel a little bad for him, he never really got a shot to really compete because the pre-season tore him up on this crazy expectations casino, which is essentially a noise machine. So you've got to build something strong enough to muscle through all that and very few people can do it.

What has been the impact of Walker getting out on what you do?

I think Governor Walker, for whatever reason, jumped into the other lane. I think he could have been competitive in either lane but he chose that lane, which surprised me. So it didn't really affect us that much because he was in the other space but I know some of his key Iowa supporters, some electeds, have come our way. He didn't have a big enough bloc of voters, and I'm not a big believer in candidate endorsements—they're helpful, but especially this early people make their own decisions.

What about Walker’s money?

I met with a large Walker donor, one of his finance donors who I think we have a good chance of getting.

Is this Ricketts?

Well, we have a good relationship with the Ricketts families, they're donors to us. Well, I don't want to mention any donor until they're ready to pop but let's just say we've been in communication with some of their major folks and the Ricketts have given money to us, too, not nearly as much, we're open for more.

How are interactions with donors different being on the super-PAC side than it would be on the hard-dollar campaign side?

Well, it's a different animal only in that, because the hard-dollar stuff is limited, that's more of a scale business. We're very proud here that we are not dominated by any one donor. Some of these super-PACs are kind of mono-donor super-PACS where there's one donor is paying half the money or more. We are very diversified—we have several thousand major donors here—but you communicate with them. We put out a thing we call L.A. Confidential, which is kind of our update newsletter, and we do phone calls and meetings and all that, and what I like about our donors, we have a lot of strong personalities, they're very passionate about Jeb. So we stay in contact, sometimes they have pretty good ideas too, we're kind of open source for ideas.

But when they start to worry, you can’t put them on the phone with the candidate to assuage or motivate them, right?

Yeah, well I can't say, “Hold for Jeb.” Sometimes we'll do a briefing and then we all leave the room and he can go talk a little bit about what's going on in the campaign, but that's all. There are a lot of lawyers around to make sure it's all done properly. We're so lawyered up I feel like a Clinton.

Someone in your position in a campaign is typically thinking how to make your paid and earned media work in concert. What’s it like to be on the super-PAC side, where you have so much cash for ads but can’t control the candidate or surrogates hour-to-hour to drive free media behind those messages?

I’ve never met a campaign consultant who’s done a fair amount of this stuff that doesn’t have occasional control-freakish tendencies. I’ll see something happening on the campaign trail I don’t like; in the old days I could pick up the phone and do something about it. Now I can’t. But there’s a lot of time here to think and focus on the stuff that really counts. The tactical trivia doesn’t really bug you too much because there’s not much you can do about it.

While we’re talking about things you can’t do much about, what’s your view on the question of whether George W. Bush should be in any form a face of Jeb’s campaign?

I think he’s an asset, I’m looking forward to seeing him. He’s a busy man. This is about Jeb but I’m hoping to see him on the campaign trail.

He’s an asset in terms of both events and potentially appearing in ads?

He kept us safe so he is an asset. I don’t want to speculate about how, that will be a Miami call because I’m not even sure. I think Jeb will be the star of the Jeb campaign, as he should, but I think the president’s support is no secret so I think it would be an asset if he had some public involvement and I think he probably will at the right time.

How is the experience of setting up a super-PAC, just getting it off the ground, different than it would be if it were a candidate campaign?

I've set up a lot of campaigns and it's not that dissimilar. The nice thing about a super-PAC is you can specialize on what you can do—because what you can't do is some of the things that are completely candidate-specific. So we're really a messaging organization, messaging and research here. We care a lot about digital messaging, we care a lot about digital data, we care a lot about traditional advertising, radio, television, mail. And we care a lot about monitoring the information flow of the campaign and then keeping an eye on what the campaign is doing. We try to be very sensitive to what they're trying to do on messaging while still supporting it, because we can't really coordinate.

So we don't try to ape what they do but we kind of keep an eye on it and that's just part of our function here, All super-PACs do that, but there are huge differences in how people are interpreting the law. We're far more conservative than the Kasich people; they're doing stuff our lawyers would never allow, so but it's open to interpretation.

Such as?

I don't want to get in too much details but the advertising that they're running is extremely overt for super-PAC advertising as far as Kasich participating and talking to a camera. That is a very aggressive interpretation. We shut our communication down before the wall went down, we had a buffer period, they shut theirs down 30 seconds before. So we'll see who's right in the end but we're pretty conscious about all that stuff.

We're in a luckier position than the other super-PACs, I think, because I have a long association with Jeb, we go back to the '97 campaign, '98 and Sally, 1 who's the top person down there, she goes back to '94. So he was rare in that he had two kind of long-term political advisers who had worked very well together, so we had kind of… I think if I were some of these other guys where I'm turning over a bunch of super-PAC responsibilities to somebody I met three months ago I'd be nervous.

That's because you understand how they think?

Yeah. I understand what Jeb wants, I understand what kind of campaign he wants, I understand his theory of the race, what risks he wants to take versus what parts of his record he wants to stress. So just, there was a certain comfort level. And so the rest was just setting up the machinery of it all.

Is there any traditional campaign functions that, legally speaking, you could have chosen to take on at the super-PAC but have chosen not to?

There’s one digital thing that I wish we could do more of but we can’t, because in the social media space we don’t have Jeb, who is the great asset there. I know there’s a million cool things they could be doing that they don’t have the dollars to do— and no other campaign has the dollars to do, too, but they have the knowledge and the intent—but I’m not allowed to do that. We’re not allowed to go amplify some of the social media content they’ve made. I’d love to go throw $4 million to $5 million at Facebook advertising.

Just because you don’t know how they targeted it?

No, because I can’t repeat their content. We have to digitally rotoscope our Jeb yard signs when we send a camera to one of his town halls, we can’t use their logo in our images. No, you know, the Kasich lawyers down at Mulligan’s Bar might allow that, but we don’t. And I’m joking about the Kasich lawyers and alcohol—they’re litigious.

If there was one reform of all this, I think it would be better if super-PACs were allowed to purely amplify campaign materials produced by the campaign in digital. In other words, if Jeb puts up a Facebook post under his name and his pen that he’s responsible for, and I could spend money amplifying that to more people I think that would be a good thing, actually. But we’re not allowed to. That’s one place where we’re not allowed to do some digital stuff that we might be good at.

Are you able to deduce how they’ve targeted digital content?

A little bit. Digital’s harder to track than the regular stuff, than traditional advertising. It’s not like a linear relationship between they just bought $40,000 on a station in Iowa. But we do scrub and watch and stuff pops up, so we make educated guesses.

When you said “monitoring their information flow,” what does that mean?

I have some sense for tone, record, nuances, strengths and weaknesses that a stranger may not know. And a personal relationship where I feel he's my friend and I want to do a good job for him, it's not just a job to me.

Is it harder or easier to amplify campaign messaging when it’s positive or negative messaging?

Traditionally—and when you say traditionally with super-PACs it’s kind of a misnomer because there…

Why Marco Rubio Worries Jeb Bush’s Camp More Than Trump

There’s not a lot of history there.

Yeah, it’s like “traditionally” with a three-year-old. Traditionally super-PACs have been used for comparative-and-contrast talk about the opponents. They’ve kind of been a hammer. There’s still plenty of utility in that but we’ve tried to be a super-PAC telling Jeb’s story and the next couple of ads we’re going to continue on that path. That said, if somebody takes a poke at Jeb we’re capable of poking back. We’re not going to be afraid to draw issue contrasts later in the race, because there are tremendous issue contrasts. A lot of these folks haven’t even gotten to the second look yet and voters ought to get a second look at all of them, because they’re making a big bet on who our nominee is. And if we elect somebody, or if we nominate somebody who is very vulnerable or who holds positions that are not aligned with what most Republicans believe, they ought to know about it. We’re for a transparent marketplace and part of what we’re going to do is tell the story on some of our competitors so people see the strong and the vulnerable side of them.

It does seem as though, in your theory of the race, Rubio will be the biggest obstacle to being where you want to be on March 16.

The second and third look are going to be very tough on Marco Rubio. That’s just a prediction.

And that’s based on his record?

Based on: there’s not a lot there record-wise. I’m a Marco donor, I was one of his first donors when he ran for the Senate, I’m glad he did—Marco’s always had incredible possibilities. But he needs more time to reach them. Because we look at his record, I think we’re finding what the American voters are, that there’s not a lot. He hasn’t done much.

This was the challenge both Hillary and McCain faced in running against Obama in 2008. Running against the absence of a record is probably a lot harder than running against stuff on the record that more obviously a negative.

I think so, but it’s easier post-Obama than before because we’ve had the Less Filling, Tastes Great great experiment. Now we’ve got the terrible security situation of the world and two presidential terms where the middle class has gotten very little, more pain than anything else. So I think we’ve tried to pick “what’s behind pretty curtain number three” and then we found that it was an empty box there. So we’ll see.

Is there anything in particular in Rubio’s record or background that you feel is a vulnerability but hasn’t gotten media attention?

Well, I think Rubio’s been in this position of promising I’m going to be great eventually and not held to anything. Rubio can be up or down, nothing matters. None of the yardstick being applied to us is being applied to Rubio.

Isn’t that a testament to the fact that the Rubio’s campaign did a better job than Jeb’s of setting low expectations and deflecting media scrutiny as a result?

No, I think it’s just low stakes, you know? Rubio’s kind of an also-ran and everybody’s waiting for the golden moment. So now, if this is his golden moment, let’s take the second look. Why is he running television ads in all three early states and nationally that are paid for by mystery donors? Has he ever been even asked that question?

I don’t think the media understand, it’s $6 million, nobody’s done that with (c)(4) money. We think (c)(4)s are totally appropriate. We have one. We’re proud of it. But it's basically been focused on policy research and things like that, not on television ads that are thinly disguised campaign ads. Rubio's entire spend has been that so far, $6 million all secret donors. It kind of stuns me that he's gotten away with that in the media.

So I think now is the time for Rubio to get out there and show some substance and perform a little bit. Second look.

When will voters start to hear about those contrasts with other candidates from your ads?

Well, I’m not going to get into our exact strategy but I think a little bit later in the race this year.

This year, you said.

I mean, I would not be surprised if we moved to that phase this year, yeah.

How much of that have you already scheduled?

We’ve had two spots. There are probably 20 in our production pipeline that have been already tested and are being tweaked and everything so it’s kind of like being an air traffic controller; you can see all the planes lined up that are going to land and I like our sequence a lot.

You have a candidate out there vowing to run a “joyful” campaign. Are there things the super-PAC could do in ads that, tonally, you worry would undercut that promise and complicate things for him?

 No, no. If the ad tone is factual and true I think you’re fine. If it’s grievously or disgustingly over the top you can always make an ad that hurts more than it helps.

Do you have a sense of whether voters recognize the difference between ads that are coming from the campaign and ads that are coming from the super-PAC? Especially with what you call compare-and-contrast messaging, are there spots you feel would make sense for the super-PAC to run but would worry about airing with a candidate’s paid-for message attached?

No, no, that’s not a distinction that we’re… Any advertising we do is going to be fair, credible and fact-based. You know, I’ll say one more thing about Marco, because I can’t resist. What’s interesting about Marco’s campaign—and in the end I think all the essential truth of the stuff bubbles up to the voters and they sort it out pretty well—is there's a cynicism to it. It’s cynical to run as the creature of new, fresh, while it’s all secret dark money. Maybe from one person, we don’t know. It’s cynical to say, “I’m going to take the lead on defeating this horrible Iran deal that we all hate,” and broadcast your ads to defeat that deal only on the Fox Network, where everybody is already against the deal, instead of running those ads on MSNBC to pressure Democratic senators that were the outcome to beating that deal. Cynically use it just to raise your name ID among Republican primary voters who already agree with you on the deal. There is a cynicism behind the young, fresh brand that I think is going to catch up with him.

I’d say that, if you wish other campaigns are going to uncork money on Marco Rubio, you’ll be disappointed.

I think the voters will sniff it out on their own. I think the media should take a more adversarial position there, like they do with everybody else. And yeah, there will come a time when we’re going to ask, “What are the accomplishments?”

Do you think Rubio has uniquely benefited uniquely from a non-adversarial media?  More so than other candidates in this field? I mean, more than other candidates in this field?

Yeah, so far. It’s another Obama parallel to me: he’s getting the Obama 2008 treatment.

You said earlier you did one national poll. Why did you do that one?

We wanted to look at some issues, we weren't interested in the horse race, and kind of how some perceptions are out there about… You know, kind of map… We're more interested in what the voters think about issues and the voters than we are horse race at this point, in a national way, so that was the only time we did it. I think it's fundamentally a waste of money.

But early-state horse-race stuff at this point is relevant.

It starts to get interesting, it's still not very predictive. These things move very late. I'm going to be much more interested in what polling looks like after December 1 and particularly in January in Iowa and New Hampshire, but yeah, we take a look. We do kind of an interesting IVR thing where we go in every three days into some of the early states so we can get a large sample, but IVR's kind of a brute force technology, there are some issues. 

These are just short-form surveys, I assume, measuring support…

Yeah, you want a super-short questionnaire. And we look at information flow, we don't put a ballot on those. We ask some “considered” questions, we ask some “lane” questions and we ask some information flow…

When you say “information flow” in this context, what do you mean? 

“Are you hearing more positive or more negative information about name, name and name?” Just so we can kind of track the environment there. But even on that stuff we don't do a horse race question because we think it's premature. I'm more interested in what percent of the electorate is considering Jeb versus others, I'm interested in lanes, kind of the Grievance Lane versus the Optimistic Lane. We have other ways we kind of crack the electorate and we like to track that.

Are those the only two lanes?

Well no, we have some proprietary lanes I don't want to talk about, we have a couple of theories about the Iowa caucus electorate, the New Hampshire electorate and the South Carolina electorate. We kind of cluster March 1 into different groups of states.

So would you say then that you are seeing things in the three early states you just mentioned, that those of us who are looking at only public polling aren't?

Yeah. Consideration of the “will you consider Jeb thing” has been climbing and climbing, the information flow is going our way. I mean we started advertising on Sept. 15; it has a definite impact. We had better flow after the second debate than the first. As the campaign goes on it's a good way to track what might be happening on the ground. I'm a fanatic for the information-flow data.

It’s been 15 years since you’ve been this involved in a presidential race, right?

Yeah, because I passed on Romney 2008 and McCain 2008. I was involved in the kind of the preplanning of Romney’s first campaign in 2007, yeah.

So what is different about coming into a campaign and thinking about these problems in 2015 than it was in 2000?

We have a whole new communications toolbox now that we didn’t have, which is both a strength and a weakness, because there’s a lot of clutter and waste to it. There's a kind of a gee-whiz, chase-the-new-toy mentality. You can have too much data—too much decision-making data, you can’t really have too much voter data. The news cycle has a quicker velocity now, there’s more noise in the punditry. On the other hand, you can communicate much more efficiently in real time. The production world has completely been revolutionized. It’s amazing what you can do with a GoPro camera. Post-production, you can trade instant content. Now the problem with instant content is you start having a thousand snowflakes and nothing of mass, so message synchronization becomes really important. Polling’s been revolutionized. It’s actually harder to poll accurately now, I think, than it used to be. So the technology has given us a lot, a lot of new insight and a lot of new trivia.

What part excites you the most?

People always say, “Oh you’re experienced and you’re 50. That means you’re a square TV guy, and you don’t get digital.” I think there’s no correlation between getting digital and age. I remember when I was a young TV consultant, I used to always have a sore shoulder from lugging a Kaypro computer around. I built my first computer with a soldering iron. I’ve made more money investing in Silicon Valley than I have from politics. I’m a communications guy; I am platform-agnostic. The fact is in the Republican primary audience, which tends to be older, TV is extremely powerful and we allocate our capital to where the results are. But we’re doing a lot of cool stuff in digital and I’m particularly interested in integrating people’s digital life, information about that, with what we know in their voter-file history. And that is slow, tedious work, but that is the puzzle you want to crack. And so we’re funding a lab here to work on that.

What does that mean, a lab?

So we’re doing a lot of lab experiments with different creative. We take ad concepts we have and we do a lot of online testing. We're very also interested, frankly, in the four million voters—like three and a half—who are going to decide the general election, so we’ve already started a lot of data-mining work on that. We’re taking their IP and mobile-device life and finding ways to link it up to the voter-file history we already know, so we get the 360-degree picture on people and can communicate with them really well. That’s the Holy Grail of this.

We’re scraping the Internet for clues about people. We’re very interested in geo-targeting in mobile devices, things like that we use to try to find new insights.

Geo-targeting to the actual location where somebody is using their device in real time?

Yeah, I want to know where the cell phone goes at night. I learn a lot about their mobile life and where they vote and then I start to figure out who they are.

Does all this tech innovation significantly affect what you think you can accomplish as a campaign?

The thing that surprises me most is what I find the most valuable, as I look at this now versus then, is experience. I’m like an old chimp; pattern recognition tricks are helpful and you only get that by having done it for a long time.

Based on that experience, what are the patterns you think you’re seeing now that others are missing?

This is a lot like value investing. You’re always trying to buy a dollar for 50 cents by focusing on the fundamentals and a longer-term view. It takes a lot of contrarian discipline, and if you’re new to campaigns you tend to panic at the current situation. Morning Joe says we’re in trouble, look out, you know? Where if you’ve been around this you understand, you know what a January is like in Iowa or New Hampshire before the actual voting. But you learn the essence of strategy, which is pick a few things that really matter that are leverageable and ignore a lot of other stuff that aren’t. That’s very hard to do, because all the incentives in campaigns short-term are to run around with your hair on fire. 

  1. Sally Bradshaw, a Tallahassee-based consultant who has advised Jeb Bush for years and is personally close to Murphy, serves a parallel role as chief strategist in the Miami headquarters of Bush's campaign.