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These three campaign gurus for Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have had some time to reflect on this nightmare of a campaign. And do they ever have stories to tell.
It's been roughly 40 days since Donald Trump became the presumptive presidential nominee of the Republican Party, and the mere fact of it hasn't come to feel any less weird, or any less scary. It also means that the three people I had coffee and pastries with last Wednesday morning—Danny Diaz (Jeb Bush's campaign manager), Jeff Roe (Ted Cruz's campaign manager) and Alex Conant (Marco Rubio's communications director)—have been able to process what the hell happened. Well-compensated, highly intelligent and very publicly defeated, each one of them is still angry, both at Trump and at the media. Each one of them has theories about how we got to this very disconcerting place in American political history. And not one of them is prepared to vote for Trump. The stories they told me over a 90-minute conversation at a bar called Black Jack in Washington DC provided an entirely different view of the campaign and of elite Republican thinking. They spoke with unusual candor about which strategies they pushed that they now regret, how they believe network executives conspired against their candidates, what a disaster the Republican convention will be and why a Hillary Clinton blowout may be upon us. This is what it’s like to lose to Donald Trump.This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. When you enter an election, you have a carefully laid plan about how you’re going to win it. At what point in the cycle did you realize that plan was meaningless? Danny Diaz (Jeb Bush's campaign manager) A D.C. fixture whose biggest successes have been for moderate Republicans. He helped elect Mark Kirk to the Senate in Illinois and Susana Martinez to the governor's mansion in New Mexico. I appreciate your starting with me. [laughs] Right after Labor Day, we understood that it was going to be a really, really difficult race for us, despite the advantages that we had. It was persistent in the survey work just the level of unhappiness, anger and disaffection among voters. A D.C. fixture whose biggest successes have been for moderate Republicans. He helped elect Mark Kirk to the Senate in Illinois and Susana Martinez to the governor's mansion in New Mexico. Jeff Roe (Ted Cruz's campaign manger) He is often described as one of the sharpest minds in Republican politics, the next Karl Rove. Labor Day was about the time we knew, too. He is often described as one of the sharpest minds in Republican politics, the next Karl Rove. Really? That seems early. Roe So we did 5,000 calls a night from the day we got in the race to the day we got out. We had a continual analytic program. And you could tell from early on that Trump had a floor. He was always going to have 25 to 30 percent of liberal-to-moderates, he was going to have 25 to 30 percent of somewhat conservatives, he was going to have 25 to 30 percent of very conservatives. Alex, what about for you? Alex Conant (Marco Rubio's communications director) He's a well-regarded communications hand who cut his teeth in the George W. Bush administration before heading over to the RNC. He also ran press for Tim Pawlenty in 2012. Well, we were a lot later than that. We knew that Trump was going to be strong going into the holidays, but it wasn't until after he beat us in Nevada that we felt he was more likely than not to be the nominee. He's a well-regarded communications hand who cut his teeth in the George W. Bush administration before heading over to the RNC. He also ran press for Tim Pawlenty in 2012. Let’s go back to the moment Trump descended his beautiful gilded escalator at Trump Towers to announce his candidacy. Did you honestly recognize him as a threat? Conant I was skeptical. Like a lot of people, I didn’t even know if he would qualify for the first debate. I didn’t know if he would be willing to file the FEC financial disclosures, or if the networks would take him seriously enough to allow him to be on the stage. I had the editor of a major news outlet tell us that for every candidate who enters the race, they do five stories, including a deep dive on their background and a fact-check of their speech. But they weren’t doing that for Trump because they didn’t take him seriously. They just viewed it as publicity. And that was how I thought about his candidacy as he came down the escalator. Diaz If you took a cursory look at his record, the positions and stances he had taken, and lined those up against where conservative voters are, it was hard to see how those two lines connected at the outset. And thus began the fall. (Getty) Jeff, what was your polling telling you at the very beginning? Roe We do our polling a little bit different. We always had a continual, rotating “consider score.”A consider score measures whether a respondent will consider a candidate for the office they are seeking. When Trump got into the race, I think he was at a 28/58 favorable/unfavorable rating. And he was earning about 3 or 4 percent in the overall ballot. But his consider score matched his favorable rating, which never happens. Your consider score should be in between your favorable and your ballot.Ben Carson, on the other hand, had a huge favorable number, but few people seriously considered voting for him for president. So, out of the gate, the race became about him or not him. A consider score measures whether a respondent will consider a candidate for the office they are seeking.Ben Carson, on the other hand, had a huge favorable number, but few people seriously considered voting for him for president. There were a bunch of times when people were like, “Well, this is going to do him in.” Like when he said John McCain wasn’t a war hero, or the Megyn Kelly menstruating comment, or making fun of a disabled reporter. Which one made you say, “This guy is smoked”? Roe All of the above. There was a time when you wondered if the bug was going to meet the windshield or not. But everything was brand-consistent. His brand was being politically incorrect: He’s saying everything that you’ve always wanted to say. You might not like it, but he’s speaking for you. He's the billionaire blue-collar guy. That’s why this Mexican judge thing is different. That's him looking out for himself, instead of him looking out for you. Diaz What’s different now is the electorate. He’s playing to a much broader field of people than he was in the primaries. Let’s be nice to each other for a minute. What was a strategic decision that a rival campaign made that impressed you? Roe Bush’s manhandling of Romney was pretty impressive. I think Mitt was a big question mark at that point in the race.Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee, was flirting with the idea of entering the race in January 2015 but ultimately decided against it. He would have walked in with a ton of credibility, a ton of dough, a ton of institutional support, and really swamped that lane. It was interesting to watch how Bush was making donors saddle up. It was very clearly aimed at one dude. Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee, was flirting with the idea of entering the race in January 2015 but ultimately decided against it. Conant I would agree. I thought the early days with Jeb’s campaign, when he was able to lock down the Florida establishment and the Florida donor base—not only did that continue to be a long-term problem for us, it was very effectively done. And then I think the Cruz campaign showed an amazing amount of discipline through the summer. Partnering with Trump at the Iran rally was a really smart move. Our campaign manager said last fall that he thought the Cruz campaign was the best-run campaign in the race, and I think that held throughout. Alex, what would you say was the low point of your campaign? Conant The New Hampshire debate was our low point.It was a disaster. Rubio had just performed well in Iowa, and it seemed as if he was about to consolidate elite support. But on stage, Chris Christie mercilessly mocked him for being robotic. Rubio responded by assuming many of the characteristics of a non-carbon-based life form. It was a disaster. Rubio had just performed well in Iowa, and it seemed as if he was about to consolidate elite support. But on stage, Chris Christie mercilessly mocked him for being robotic. Rubio responded by assuming many of the characteristics of a non-carbon-based life form. I thought you might say that one. What was it like being backstage for a moment like that? Conant In the moment, you know it’s not good, but you don’t know how bad it’s going to be. You're certain it’s not great, but the instant metrics that we had in terms of the fundraising, what the Google analytics were saying about how people thought Marco did were all encouraging. But the media narrative coming out was just devastating. The media would be wise to come out and tell the truth, which is: We make business decisions, and the reality is that this guy sells magazines and ads. Danny Diaz So you’re in a competing campaign, and you’re watching Chris Christie essentially put the shiv into Rubio on the stage. Does any part of you feel sympathy for him? Roe No, no, no. Maybe afterward. But no. It’s an aggressive contest. We all sit within 20 feet of each other in different rooms in these awful debate locations. So you can hear other campaigns react. But you don’t hear everybody cheering when somebody else screws up. You hear cheering from other rooms when their guy does well. Diaz What's amazing is
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