Two senior members of Senator Marco Rubio’s campaign –among the most in-demand communications strategists in the country– Alex Conant and Terry Sullivan, joined me today to look back at what went right and wrong for their candidate and to discuss the launch of their new firm Firehouse Strategies:
HH: As I said to Mike Allen last hour, green room drums beat, and you hear things. And I’m sitting in a green room a couple of weeks ago at NBC with Alex Conant, who is the remarkable guy who did coms for Tim Pawlenty and then Marco Rubio, and he tells me he and Terry Sullivan, who’s a remarkable guy who did strategy and managed the Marco Rubio campaign are putting together Firehouse Strategies, and @AlexConant and @OnBackground are their [Twitter handles]. And I said well, come on and talk to me about that. And so Alex and Terry, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show, great to have you on. Alex, this is not your first rodeo with me, and thank you first of all, in advance, for 100 bookings over five years, probably 200 bookings over six or eight years, and I appreciate it greatly.
AC: Thanks, Hugh, thanks for having us on, and thanks for having my former clients on, my former bosses on. You always give people a fair interview. So it was always an easy ask.
HH: It’s just wonderful to have pros here, and Terry, it’s your first time on. Before I ask you the tough questions, Mike Allen said Firehouse Strategies are going to work, because everyone needs to know how to deal with the media in the world of Trump, especially corporate America. What is Firehouse Strategies about, Terry Sullivan?
TS: You know, Firehouse Strategies is about realizing that modern political communications, corporate coms, is a heck of a lot different than it was even last cycle, much less ten years ago. And the amount of information and the amount of coverage that is out there and the reporters is just amazing. And we’ve experienced it firsthand, and you know, between Alex and Will Holley, who’s a partner of ours and I, you know, we know how to navigate that and work with these reporters to get the message out.
HH: Who is going to be the client of Firehouse Strategies? Who do you want to call the office today and say hey, I just heard you on the Hewitt show, I think Firehouse Strategies should come to work for us?
TS: You know, folks who are ready to embrace a new way of doing things, instead of the old way of getting their message out. You know, corporate client or a committee or a candidate for office, but someone who really is focused on realizing that things are different, and we need to do things a different way. And doing things the same way is going to fail.
HH: Alex and Terry, I talked to Mike Allen, as I said, from Playbook last hour, and he’s got you in Playbook this morning. And we commented on the permanent campaign, because the lead article in Playbook is a reference to the Alex Isenstadt piece in Politico this morning that 2020 has begun, because Republicans are basically resigned to Trump losing. Alex, do you agree with that?
AC: Well, I think Trump has an uphill battle. If you just look at the Electoral College, the Electoral map, the demographic challenges facing not just his candidacy, but I think our party in general, clearly he has an uphill battle. But I think anyone that looks at the last six months and then tells you they know what’s going to happen in the next six months hasn’t been paying any attention. It’s an incredibly unpredictable year. And as Terry just said, the way people receive information now is totally different than it was just a couple of years ago. And Trump understands that, and he’s done a masterful job communicating, for better or worse, worse in the case of the Rubio campaign, but he’s done a masterful job campaigning, and I think Clinton, in many ways, is still stuck in the 1990s in the way that her campaign is disseminating information and trying to get their message out.
HH: Terry Sullivan, if I say to you the six minutes that changed 2016, what am I talking about, do you think?
TS: Well, I know what you’re talking about, because it has everything to do with the coverage. And it’s not the six minutes, though. And this is where I would argue that point. You’re talking about the New Hampshire debate.
TS: And you know, though, it’s interesting. If you watched how much stock has been put into the Google Analytics real time polling they did during the debate, you watch that, actually, Marco came in second amongst people who were watching the debate according to Google. But if you saw the coverage the following 72 hours, no one’s gotten that much bad coverage since O.J. Simpson was in a white Ford Bronco headed for the border.
TS: It was a roadblock of constant bad coverage for Marco, and for the campaign. And it was really tough to cut through that, and that kind of goes to the premise of our business model, which is helping these clients communicate. Look, this is going to come at you in a tidal wave form. You’ve got to be able to get out a counter message. And in that situation, it took us several days to be able to cut through it. We were able to turn the corner, and you know, and headed into South Carolina with a little bit of a head of steam enough to make up some ground.
HH: You know, Alex, I did four of these debates, and I was always asked who won afterwards, and I said I have no idea, because I don’t know what’s being seen or said about what happened on the stage. I have to go watch it. In fact, after the New Hampshire debate, I went on CNN and said I don’t think it was that bad, and one of my famous mis-pronouncements on 2016, of which there have been many, because it was early in that. But did you know it as it was happening? Or did it take a while to reveal itself? And how do corporate clients, you know, figure out what’s happening to them in the middle of this?
AC: You know, I had a similar reaction to you, Hugh. When I actually watched it, I didn’t think it was that bad. But then, you know, everybody watches with two screens. They watch the debate on their TV, and then they watch what’s happening, what the instant analysis is on Twitter or on their Facebook pages. And that’s where we really did not do well. And while you were on TV after the debate, I was in the Spin Room telling people I didn’t think it was that bad. Meanwhile, everyone else on cable, and everyone else on Twitter, and then all of the media the next day just piled on, and as Terry said, it created a real negative echo chamber. Then that just reinforced the idea that Marco had a very bad debate. But it also made it impossible for us to get out any other sort of message. And it took us a couple of days to turn the page on that. We were able to in South Carolina, in part, because we had the endorsement of Governor Haley and Senator Scott, and Representative Gowdy in South Carolina, and I mean, people forget now, but Marco beat Ted Cruz in South Carolina, and went on to beat Ted Cruz in Nevada. And we came out of February doing better than I think most people expected we were going to do in the first four contests. It just wasn’t enough to beat Donald Trump.
HH: Terry Sullivan, one of the other assessments is that good news cannot beat bad news, because not only did you have a good February, Senator Rubio won the Miami debate, the last debate I participated in, the last debate that was held. And it was generally recognized as that, but it wasn’t enough to win Florida. Did Senator Cruz make a strategic error by contesting Florida when he knew he couldn’t win it, avoiding the one on one matchup? Or was that what he had to do in order to get the one on one matchup that he subsequently lost in Indiana?
TS: You know, I feel like anybody who’s running to run has a right to run to win, and that you know, to steal a NASCAR analogy, you can’t force someone to draft off of you or allow you to draft off of them. And you know, he made the decision he made. We made decisions. And at the end of the day, you know, you spend a lot of quality time staring at the ceiling lying in bed at night wondering what if I would have done this or that. And you know, I don’t know that there’s a single thing that we could point to that would have just changed the outcome. I mean, Donald Trump fit what a lot of voters want out there, and there are a lot of angry voters, and they wanted something different, and they wanted change. And you can say what you want about Donald Trump, most people will. But he’s different.
HH: He is very different. Alex Conant, there is a piece in the Washington Examiner I wrote today ghosting for Donald the Trump Tower chats number one, where I lay out what I think he ought to be doing every Monday for 30 minutes, which is going around and over and under the mainstream media. But all weekend was spent repeating his attacks on the Mexican-American judge in his Trump University. Does it have any impact at all on Donald Trump, because he has 100% name identification, and I think everything is baked into that cake. Do you agree with me?
AC: Yes and no. I mean, I think everybody heretofore has seen Donald Trump as a businessman and as a celebrity. But now that he’s the presumptive Republican nominee, now that I think by the end of tomorrow, Hillary Clinton’s going to be the presumptive Democratic nominee, the American voters are going to start looking at these candidates in a different way. They’re going to stop looking at Donald Trump as simply a businessman or a celebrity, and start looking at him as a potential president. And he still needs to fill in what a Trump presidency would look like. We don’t know a whole lot about what his agenda would be. He’s made some progress in that in recent weeks, talking about the judges that he would nominate, talking about his defense of the 2nd Amendment. But there’s a lot more area there for him to fill in. I think that’s what he needs to focus on in the coming weeks. Not only will it help him unite Republicans and get conservatives energized about his candidacy, but I think it will make it more difficult for Hillary Clinton’s campaign to try to paint him as what they want to paint him as, which is somebody who’s unprepared to be president.
HH: Alex Conant and Terry Sullivan are my guests. They are the partners of the brand new Firehouse Strategies. They teamed up with Senator Rubio in one of the most successful, nearly-completely successful campaigns of 2016, Alex and Terry operating out of DC for corporate clients everywhere, Firehouse Strategies. You can follow them on Twitter @AlexConant and @OnBackground. Terry, last question for you. Should Donald Trump, in addition to his vice president, name his cabinet in order to more fully define? A lot of people say it’s illegal. It’s not. Anyone who knows the law there knows it’s not about naming your cabinet. And besides, they’re subject to advice and consent. You can’t promise a job. What do you think? A minute, Terry.
TS: Yeah, it wouldn’t be a bad idea. I mean, he did a lot of good by listing out judges. The problem he’s got isn’t can he, are these things hurting him. It’s he’s got to grow. He’s got to do better amongst white college-educated voters. He is underperforming where Mitt Romney did in that crowd, and he’s not over-performing amongst others. And it’s not about reaching out to diverse groups for him. It’s just that simple segment of the population, and it might put some of them at ease if he seemed a little more stable in some of his picks, like he did on the judges.
HH: Alex Conant, Terry Sullivan from Firehouse Strategies, follow them on Twitter @AlexConant, and @OnBackground. Don’t go anywhere, America.
End of interview.