Guy Cecil of Pro-Clinton PAC Priorities USA Will Not Be Outspent

A Q&A about how he intends to spend his $200 million.

Guy Cecil of Priorities USA stands for a photograph on the floor during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 27, 2016.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Ever since the Supreme Court in 2010 legalized the spending vehicles known as super-PACs, Democrats have used the Citizens United case to plead a perpetual penury. One of the most successful fundraising appeals of President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign was an e-mail entitled “I will be outspent.” But this year is different. Last week in Philadelphia, Democrats were preparing for a fall campaign season in which they would be able to lord a massive cash advantage over their opponents.

The Hillary Clinton and Obama donor worlds have effectively merged at the same time that the conservative money establishment has been riven by internal disagreements and the Republican Party has nominated a fat cat with a tragicomic disinterest in filling his campaign's coffers. Donald Trump repudiated super-PACs during the primaries, and began raising funds in earnest only after he’d clinched the nomination. When the campaigns and outside groups for each candidate are combined, according to calculations by the Center for Responsive Politics, Clinton and her allies have raised $375 million to Trump’s $99 million.

The person outside of Clinton's Brooklyn headquarters who will likely have the largest pile of that money to spend, as well as the freest hand in dispersing it, is Guy Cecil, co-chair and chief strategist of the super-PAC Priorities USA. Unlike Clinton’s campaign manager and chairman, Cecil has no candidate, candidate’s spouse, or national or state parties to influence or second-guess his budget or strategic decisions. (The only legal method of communicating his intentions to them is through interviews like these.) As of June 30, Priorities USA had raised over $100 million—halfway to its anticipated budget for the year.

Cecil, 42, was Clinton’s political and field director during the 2008 campaign, and afterward spend two election cycles heading the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. This is his first time on the super-PAC side of the equation.

People whose job it is to raise funds are expert at pleading poverty. But even Cecil concedes, “$200 million is a lot of money.”

How did you manage to raise three times more than Priorities USA had in 2012?

There’s a little bit of a difference in the capacity to raise money, because they started a little bit later and the president had opposed PACs in 2008. Whereas we’ve been at this—I’ve been on for a year, and the PAC has been working prior to that.

You started reserving post-convention television ads in late March, while the Republican primaries were still unresolved. You didn’t know then who your opponent would be.

A lot of it was driven by cost. Part of our responsibility is to make sure we’re spending our money as efficiently as possible. Independent groups pay higher rates during the campaign, and costs are being driven up every week, every month, and I anticipate when you look at what Donald Trump’s super-PAC is going to spend, they’re going to pay a lot more for the same sets of advertising that we reserved several months ago.

Even without relative cost savings, it doesn’t look like anyone on your side will be sending a “we will be outspent” e-mail this year.

I don’t think so. You don’t just wake up and raise money online: you develop infrastructure, build lists. You don’t just wake up and start raising big checks, and clearly they haven’t put very much emphasis on it. But every study has demonstrated he has a knack of getting an endless amount of press. So our view is to not only balance the paid media—and no question we’re ahead so far—but also to balance what people are seeing in their daily news coverage.

When the campaigns and super-PAC budgets are put together, it’s conceivable the Clinton side could have a two- or three-to-one spending advantage.

Not impossible. The challenge for us is they have a history of, and a number of donors who have the capacity to give multiple eight-figure checks. If we’re in September and this is a race that’s margin of error, I’m not confident that the Republicans will sit on the sidelines and not fully engage. 

You’ve already spent more money this year than Priorities did in all of 2012.

They did a great job of helping to define the structure of the race early. I don’t mean that people were watching the ad 1 1. In 2012, Priorities ran a series of ads, beginning in the early summer, about outsourcing and plant closures by companies under Bain Capital’s management while Romney was an executive. and making a definitional decision about Mitt Romney in April, May, June, but it helped structure the way people were viewing the race and how they saw Mitt Romney.

For us it’s a little less introducing somebody, because clearly Donald Trump is well-known. With Donald Trump, the issue is that the knowledge about him is a mile wide and an inch deep. People know some basic things about him, or draw some conclusions about him, but it’s not really filled out. So our mission is different in the sense that we are not introducing someone they don’t know, but we are defining and providing information about someone they don’t know. In both cases, I think it’s important to do it early—and one lesson the Republicans taught us about that is that waiting too long to take him on is a mistake.

Most candidate-specific super-PACs have been largely consultant-driven, but you’ve hired a real staff.

We need to have our own fully-developed polling, research, analytics operation so that we are making good decisions, that we’re not just following the lead of someone else or seeing what other people are putting on TV but we are doing the work we need to do to make decisions about how best to communicate about Donald Trump—and investing in research, polling, online panels, analytics, data, is going to help us do a much better job of spending our resources wisely. 

So what have you learned from that research about how to run against Donald Trump?

Our focus has been on the fact that Donald Trump is a divisive, dangerous candidate who is unfit to be president. There’s just an endless amount of stuff. Sorting through that was a challenge, just to prioritize it.

So what are the, um, priorities? 

There’s the Dangerous Lane and the Jerk Lane.

What’s the Jerk Lane?

If I were at the bar, instead of talking to you, I’d probably use a different word. 2 2. He does, and not only at bars. The term he prefers is unsuitable for publication here. I think the country needs to know that we have a Republican presidential candidate who thinks that his path to win is to demean and insult people.

How do you communicate that?

For example, one of the first ads that we ran was featuring the Glaros family—who are here as our guests for the convention—whose daughter has struggled through a lot of physical challenges in her life. The mom said it perfectly: the kids at their daughter’s school know not to make fun of Gracie, and yet it’s something Donald Trump has repeatedly done. And so I think you’ll see us, as we already have, talk a lot about that.

What’s in the Dangerous Lane?

This is a man whose view of the world is unhinged. You can’t as, an American president, give a press conference where you talk how impressive the leader of North Korea is for killing his uncle, you can’t talk about how you admire the strength of China for putting down Tiananmen Square, you can’t rave about Putin on a regular basis, talk about pulling out from NATO. This is not a person who should have access to the nuclear codes.

I’m a little surprised that you haven’t mentioned any of the controversies about how he runs his own businesses.

I do think we will talk about his business practices in the context of how he’s treated people—how he’s treated his workers, contractors. To me that’s not an issue of business and economics, that’s an issue of character—that’s revelatory of the type of person he is and what he prioritizes.

That’s different than how Priorities very effectively defined the last would-be plutocrat who won a Republican nomination.

There’s certainly a lot of commonality, but in the context of Romney it was about Romney being from a different world—Romney not knowing what people were going through.

You also have been talking about mobilizing core parts of the Democratic coalition, and seem to be aiming your persuasion at parts of the center-right you think you can peel off: conservative hawks in the Dangerous Lane, probably moderate suburban white women in the Jerk Lane. I don’t hear anything that sounds like it’s targeted at working-class white Democrats will need to shore up against defecting to Trump—not a word about his views on the minimum wage or tax policy, for example.

Donald Trump has had positions on both sides of just about every issue, and trying to pin down the one thing and run on that one thing doesn’t really work. In this particular case, the bigger argument is the important argument—not an isolated set of policy positions.

You’ve been airing ads in nine states. That’s not as broad a map as some thought would be possible against Trump.

We have every intention of expanding the map at least to the 2012 list. 3 3. The 2012 was fought over nine states identified by both campaigns as the core battleground : New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada. (Obama carried all of them except North Carolina.) Priorities is advertising in eight of the nine, substituting Pennsylvania for Wisconsin. The choice that we have to make: is all of our focus on getting to 270 or is our focus on winning in as many places as possible—maximizing our chances to win 280, 290, 300?

Have you settled that argument internally?

Our plan all along has been to maximize the number of places we can potentially win, spread the map as possible to do that. Build the broadest possible coalition possible.

What do you mean by that?

It’s not just enough to beat Donald Trump. We have to send the strongest message possible that he is simply an unacceptable person to be president. Hillary has also made it clear she sees it as a priority to build the entire Democratic Party. So we’re trying to find a way for us to help in that cause, while keeping a focus on the primary function of our group—which is to elect Hillary.

How does that ambition inform your campaign plan?

One of the differences between previous super-PAC efforts and ours is we are not just talking to undecided, persuadable voters. We’re not just talking to white suburban women. We see it as one of our core missions to communicate with African-Americans, Hispanics, under-35s in paid communication in a way that most independent efforts haven’t done on a broad scale.

One of the things that makes it unique with Donald Trump is just the abject disrespect that he’s shown the Hispanic community. We have an opportunity to use this election as a way to mobilize young people, and especially young Hispanics, as a pretty stark, binary, no-shades-of-gray election. It would be a shame to get on the other side of November and realize we didn’t maximize our chances to do everything we could with them.

So you’re targeting them for get-out-the-vote?

Yep. About what’s at stake in the election.

I’m a bit surprised to hear you’ve chosen to take on get-out-the-vote work. The consensus thinking seems to have been that campaigns are best-suited to do that kind of contact targeted off lists because they are engaging with individual voters—

And building the infrastructure because of the party apparatus and all those things they have at their disposal.

Right. That would leave super-PACs like yours to stick to communications that are targeted at the demographic and geographic level.

I generally think that’s true. To be clear a large percentage of our money is going to paid communication, but we want to do whatever we can to help local organizations and national coalitions that are involved in field or voter registration.

Since you can’t directly share targets or coordinate tactics with the campaign, it seems like you’d set yourself up to risk duplicating the Clinton campaign’s field efforts.

There’s enough work to do on the registration front that I don’t expect there will be a problem. We have a pretty focussed geographic, demographic program.

What and where?

Our number-one focus is in Florida. We’re also working with a coalition of Hispanic groups in Florida, Colorado, and Nevada.

Who are your partners?

We are engaged in working with For Our Future, the PAC that’s working with labor, by supplying research and analytics. We’re also working with Voto Latino and Latino Victory Project and others who are involved in voter registration. So even though we’re not directly doing that work, we’re doing everything we can to bring everyone working around one table.

How is that different than what existing alliances like America Votes 4 4. America Votes is a 12-year old consortium that coordinates election activities among organized labor and issue and membership groups, funded by large outside donors and the groups themselves. Its president, Greg Speed, sits on the board of Priorities USA and serves as its treasurer. have been set up to do?

It’s not dissimilar, except obviously we are focussed much more on providing specific analytics around Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton. So they’ve been doing a lot of this infrastructure work—what we can add is we can offer a much more Hillary-Trump-focussed layer of analytics on top of it. We do know there are some things changing about this election, even though you could argue from a polling perspective the states we’re arguing about are pretty stable. We do see an improvement in the Hispanic vote for Hillary, and we’re seeing changes in how college-educated versus non-college-educated persons are viewing the election. It’s important that we’re looking at this from a fresh lens of Hillary vs. Trump rather than just Democrat vs. Republican.

How did you settle on those states for your field efforts?

We want to find places where you have a density of unregistered voters to make that process easier, and where we feel like there’s the most room to gain per dollar. Although our primary focus is winning the presidential, we do take a look at where we can have an effect up and down the ticket. Florida has two or three House seats that could flip, we took a look at North Carolina where we have the governor’s race, Nevada where you have a Senate seat that could flip. So that’s something we consider as we think about where to invest.

At what point is your map locked in?

I think we’re at 90 percent locked-in. I do think Arizona is an intriguing proposition: you have a competitive Senate race there, you obviously have a rapidly growing Hispanic community go, you now have the Arpaio race 5 5. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, known for his hard line on illegal immigration, is up for reelection in November. One poll released last week shows him narrowly trailing a Democratic challenger.   that I think will be a huge motivator. That’s an intriguing state for us, and one we’re going to take a look at over the next month or six weeks to make some decision about investment there. I’m skeptical beyond that, but certainly we continue to poll and make sure we’re not missing opportunities and that we’re not taking anything for granted. 

Is Georgia not worth it for you?

I think Georgia and Indiana are the next two states that we poll in pretty regularly and are taking a look at. Part of this is just having resources, and if we have the opportunity to raise more than we expect then we’ll look at additional states. But right now our focus is in making sure we’re doing everything we can in the nine states we’re advertising in—which are essentially the nine closest Obama states.

Is it worth paying for a landslide?

I’m skeptical of a landslide, but I don’t think you need a landslide to have a pretty significant impact.

So it doesn’t really matter whether she wins with 270 electoral votes or 350?

Whether there is a quote-unquote mandate is not important. It’s the down-ballot, it’s about maximizing our ability to maximize our turnout among Hispanics, to register new voters using this unique opportunity with Trump. It’s to win as many Senate seats as possible, to make sure that we have an ability to confirm Hillary’s appointment to the Supreme Court. It has more to do with that—rather than some magical electoral college number to determine whether it’s a mandate or not. The way we affirm the election is making sure we can get something passed in Congress.

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