Interview with Patrick Dillon

By Angela Hart

Patrick Dillon is currently a Fellow in Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service. He is the Former White House Deputy Director of Political Affairs and Special Assistant to President Obama, and Former Chief of Staff. Currently, he is a partner with Hilltop Public Solutions. On February 24, 2016, second-year Georgetown University CCT graduate student Angela Hart sat down with Mr. Dillon to speak with him about the 2016 presidential election, politics, and advice he has for current candidates.

What are your thoughts on the current state of politics from Donald Trump to Sanders versus Clinton? Have there been any surprises or occurrences that have stood out to you thus far?

I think almost everything about Donald Trump and his campaign is, on some level, surprising. Things he says or does do not fit into normal patterns of our politics. On a broad level, I think, that’s probably the most surprising thing.

Bernie Sanders is speaking to a set of issues that are real – they are not necessarily new – these are issues that have been around for a while. I also think the Democratic primary electorate is well tailored to a candidate like him. In a lot of ways, he’s sort of the perfect – if you were trying to create in a lab the perfect candidate to respond to a certain segment of Democratic primary voters and also to create the perfect candidate to give the Hillary Clinton campaign fits, Bernie Sanders is probably it. I think he fits into a mold that there is some history for in the Democrat primary and he is somewhat less surprising. Maybe there are people who sort of assumed a coronation and assumed she was just going to walk – to whom that is surprising. I think most people who sort of look more closely at it are not as surprised.

I think the one other thing that is surprising is less about the candidates and more about some of the tools, tactics, and contours of the campaign systems right now. The assumption was in this post Citizens of a United World that Super PACS and the Coat Brothers all this money would come pouring in and that would be determinative of candidates. I am not so sure that is not still the case but, I would be somewhat surprised that Jeb Bush could raise all the money he did through a Super PAC – I just saw ninety-seven point five million dollars or something like that – and it could be raised and spent as ineffectively as it was. I think that was a surprising twist.  

I think the other surprise, is that you have a candidate like Donald Trump - not so much him, specifically, because again, I think he speaks to a certain strand of American politics that’s been around for a long time and in pretty ugly ways for a long time – but that he is so successful without spending very much money. It is a lie when he says he is self-funding his entire campaign because he is actually raising small dollar contributions, but he is not spending anywhere close to what the other candidates are and, yet, manages to achieve a media impact that surpasses any other campaign in the history of campaigns would die for. That is a little surprising that someone has been able to do that. I think it is also a question of is that just because he has the residual value of having built his brand and his celebrity over so many years or has he really cracked a code for how to campaign in a way that others can tap into? I don’t know yet. I think it is probably more the former than latter but I do not think that is it.

In regards to Jeb Bush, do you think it is the money itself or his utilization of it that was an issue? For instance, at one point, he was sending iPads reinstalled with his campaign message to citizens.

I do not think it was the money itself. I think voters do say the concept of money in politics is concerning to them, as it reasonably should be. But, I think on an individual candidate level, it rarely actually connects back. I think it is pretty rare that you have voters respond negatively to money, such as Jeb Bush; he raised around a hundred million dollars, from Super PACs, that is not what causes the problem. I think it is how the money was spent, but I also think, fundamentally, it was the campaign. When you say it is the campaign, that means it is the candidate, and, in this case, the candidate’s last name is Bush. I mean there is a whole lot of noise and a lot of finger-pointing going on about what happened in that campaign, but at the end of the day, the most fundamental to distill to its essence was his last name. It was those four letters that he could not change and he could not figure out how to talk about. This created a really difficult challenge for him and rightly so. There is not a lot of warm feeling in this country for how the last Bush in office, so it was not, in some ways, a surprising response. I think how that money could be raised and spent so quickly and do so little to help him solve that problem is surprising to me.

I know Jeb Bush tried to differentiate himself by just saying “Jeb!” with the exclamation point at the end and that, in turn, lent itself to a lot of jokes. Even though he tried to exclude the “Bush” name at the end, he was not able to.

I think that is exactly right. In a lot of ways, if there was a fundamental miscalculation of that campaign is that you could ever disassociate yourself. How can any of us disassociate ourselves from our last name and our family history? That is a hard thing for anybody to do. That is particularly hard when you are doing it in this intense hyper-focused campaign context where there are other people whose direct interest is to tie you back to that over and over again. I think there was an overconfidence that it could be done. Jeb Bush had not been on the ballot since 2002, which was pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook, and pre- almost any part of what we now consider to be the campaign landscape. Now, does that mean you can not do well with these platforms? No, but it means you have a bigger mountain to climb to figure out what the modern campaign looks like and what this environment looks like. We will not really know what the strategy was internally because, now, anybody who tells you what it was has a self-serving narrative about how they were the smart ones and everyone else was terrible. So we will never really know what that strategy was, but it does seem like there was not a real understanding of how to go do that.

During Obama’s re-election you focused on winning battleground states. What advice do you have for current candidates who will be facing similar challenges in the 2016 election?

I think in any campaign realism is the most important part of a presidential campaign. They need to look at the map. Donald Trump is out there saying he will win New York or he could win California. The point of Ted Cruz’s campaign, for a long part, has been that he believes that Republicans lost the last two presidential elections because conservative voters did not turn out at the level they were supposed to and that if he is on the ballot, he will pull the true-blue conservatives out. Maybe there is an argument on that, I do not know if the numbers actually back him up on that. The second part of his argument is that he will get them back in contention with states where they should have been, but it will open up new states that new conservatives have not historically been competitive in.

I think any time you have a campaign that is talking about opening up new states, they have to be realistic at the end of the day. The closest any campaign has come in the last few cycles to really open up new territories was in 2008 with President Obama. That was an historic election, with many different factors in play. But even then, the map did not expand that dramatically. He came closer in a couple of places, the biggest ally was Indiana, which has since reverted back.

I think the reality is that you have to hold a conversation about battleground states that is going to be realistic and hard-nosed. This means looking at the numbers, where the demographics are, and looking at where you actually appeal. When someone runs for President, they run for the whole country, they have to convince a whole country and tell a story that engages everyone. If they win in a series of battleground state elections, they have to be able to select those states, intelligently, and adapt, making some hard calls.

For the last few cycles, there has always been a thought, “Well, if we got the right Republican nominee, maybe, we could put California back in play.” Well, California is not going back in play. Someone who is spending money there is wasting resources, the most frighteningly resource in a campaign is time. The election is not going to move, everyone knows when it is going to be held, the workers only have so many hours and the candidate only has so much time to go to some of these places. They have to be willing to make tough choices that reflect that.

You are very active online discussing politics. Do you find social media platforms, such as Twitter, cultivate meaningful conversations or act as an outlet to vocalize opinions? How do you categorize platforms in regards to usage?

Well, I think it can be some of both. I think for me Twitter is sort of fun. First and foremost for me, Twitter is news. I get more news out of Twitter, now, than I do probably any other source; it is faster and it brings more different strands of input of what is going on with the news in a more easily available way than any other tools available to me.

Secondly, it is a fun little outlet to sort of blow off steam and say silly stuff about what is going on in the campaign. There are people who do it in a much more strategic way and I am not one of them.

Social media has been really important in some of the movements that happened in our country. Over the last couple of years, it has brought voices to the forefront making it more of a conversation. There are voices that I may not have been exposed to in other contexts aside from Twitter. It has helped educate me on issues, whether it is Black Lives Matter or a fuller richer conversation about feminism, it happens online in a way that maybe does not happen in some other spaces.

I say this cognizant of the down sides of the social media, such as harassment. On the other side, I think it has allowed a space for conversations to take place in a richer way that should be happening in a lot of other spaces but this is a space that has opened that up. I think we saw that looking at Ferguson or Baltimore.

I think that it is easy to dismiss social media as though “oh, it is nothing” or “it is just angry commenters yelling,” but there is actually important information getting amplified and rich conversations happening.

I came across one of your tweets, which said, “Being a Democrat means my sympathy is with the underdog, the bullied, the guy whose dream is crushed by the billionaire, in other words, Jeb.” I found this post intriguing since Democrats tend to be portrayed as the underdogs in a lot of senses, the David versus Goliath scenario, do you still find this to be the case today?

I think so. First of all, that was just a joke about Jeb being so badly bullied by Trump. You feel really badly for him. There is very little of his politics that I can possibly agree with and, frankly, for all of the talk about how modern he is on most of the core issues, he is more conservative than all the rest. When he gets into these debate contests, he gets pushed around in a way that causes you to cringe.

But, yes, fundamentally, there is the idea of the little guy (in the Democratic Party). There are a lot of different ways to talk about being a Democrat and why people are Democrats, as well as why people are Republican or why people are Independents. But, I think that is a good shorthand. The history of the Democratic Party has been for the little guy, the one who does not necessarily have power, whether it is institutional or financial. To me, I think that (being an underdog) is still the core of being a Democrat and in some way what the Party is about.

What elements are needed to craft a successful campaign or is anyone currently running a successful campaign, in your opinion?

I think I would go back to something we talked earlier about, realism. First of all, campaigns are aspirational. The candidate is trying to change the world in some way or another, it is good to be aspirational, but they cannot have their head entirely in the clouds of that aspiration. Realism means asking, “What is your plan?” “What is that strategy?” “What are the tactics that are going to support that?”

Even now, talk of a political revolution, time will tell whether a campaign built on what seems more ‘pie in the sky’ versus ‘what’s more realistic.’ I think that is one thing. I think you have to have a real sense of strategy versus tactics and that, again, sounds so foundational but you see campaigns that get caught up in tactics, not in service of a strategy. There is just sort of noise and so they need to know ‘why are you doing these things.” Are you just doing them because you are doing them reactively? Or because somebody else says you need to do them? Or do you understand? Back to what we talked about earlier in a campaign, the most precious resource is time and you are never going to get any more of it, so every hour you spend on a campaign you better know “Why are you spending that hour doing that?” and “Why is it better than spending that hour doing something else?” and no campaign manager or candidate in the world will tell you that they spent every hour exactly at the highest purpose. At the end of the day, they hope they spent more time doing the right thing than not. But, if they do not know what the right thing is, they are sort of playing luck. I think that is key.

They also need to have that plan. Plenty of campaigns have started with an impressive plan on how they were going to do it, and then have met battle and have freaked out. They need to have discipline and keep their head down because campaigns are full of people second guessing. Whether it is your own people second guessing, the other side, or the media. There is a lot of noise in a campaign and they need to have tunnel vision. They need to understand what is going on in the world, keep focus on the things they can control and do them in a way that is actually going to be helpful to their campaign. I think those are broad keys to a successful campaign.

At this point, do you think anyone’s campaign has lasted too long and it would have been more beneficial to withdraw? For instance, when Lincoln Chafee was still involved with polls, they would put an asterisk next to his name because he was not actually polling.

I do not grant that Lincoln Chafee was ever a campaign. That was a ridiculous ‘exercise in ego.’ If you are going to be a campaign, there has to be a campaign, you have to really try to pull resources together, and you have to organize. You do not get to be president because you say, “I think it would be fun to be president.” You actually have to prove you have some ability to get there so that is part of what the campaign process does.

Jim Webb has had a lifetime of service to the country but, if you don’t actually try to campaign and put together a campaign, you forfeit your right to stand on a debate stage and whine that you are not getting the attention you think you deserve. You actually have to go out and earn these things. They (Lincoln Chaffee and Jim Webb) were not campaigns by any legitimate explanation of the term.

How would they have been taken seriously?

Look at how rarely any of them were actually on the campaign trail. You go out and you build. History is full of candidates who people thought did not really have much of a chance.

Jimmy Carter, the standard cliché story, he was just a peanut farmer from Georgia. The idea was that he did not have a real shot, but he took the time and effort and went to Iowa. He practically lived there and went everywhere. He talked to everyone and slowly built up his resources. Maybe, that model does not exist now, but if you are Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb, and, literally, all you do is show up for are debates, and you are not out there trying to present a real vision, raise money for it, meet voters and communicate, you are not campaigning.

What about Ben Carson?

Anyone who leads in the polls for a little while has a chance to create a path. I do not think that leading in the polls the year before the presidential election says that much about where you are going to go, but it creates an opportunity. If you can figure out a method to capitalize on, then there is at least an opportunity.

I think back to the question of who has been disciplined and I think one of the campaigns up until last week or so that has been remarkably disciplined has been Ted Cruz. He has run a really disciplined campaign. He had a real plan for how he thought he would do this and how he would communicate and build. Not to go back to Iowa again, he did a specific granular campaign organization in Iowa county by county, precinct by precinct, and stuck to that plan, during a long period when he was not polling that well and Trump was getting all the attention and Rubio was sort of the savior. He has been remarkably disciplined, had a strategy, and assigned his time well. Now we are at an interesting stage of the campaign where there is sort of a level of panic setting in and across the Party. I think we can see some of that panic in his campaign, too. But that is someone who is not past his ‘sell by date’ in a lot of ways because he has a plan and you can see an argument for it.

What is your advice for people who want to get more involved with politics, whether it be the everyday citizen who is still learning about the process to those who are really aware of everything going on?

I think it is to be engaged. Move from the step of watching to participating. I think the exciting thing these days is there are more ways to do that. I still think at the end of the day, notwithstanding everything we said about the amazing doors of social media and of the online campaigns opening up now, there is no substitute for that real live human interaction. For folks who want to be more engaged, go to an event. Now, that is not the case in a lot of places. But, if you support a campaign, go volunteer for that campaign and figure out what it is you can do to help.

One of the things that really made the Obama campaign successful in 2008, and maybe more so in 2012, was having neighborhood volunteers who developed relationships over a period of time. Bringing volunteers in to help carry the case for ‘why they support their candidate’ is important. I think that is a way to be engaged and to really get something out of the process.

The whole point of our democracy is to be self-governing, it is to be participatory, and there are ways to do that. For folks who do not have those opportunities to do that by way of geography or a particular campaign, there is always someone somewhere running for something. I am a believer in the idea you reach out at the closest point of impact. The presidential campaign gets so much attention in the headlines, but, for most Americans, the elected office that has the most impact on their life may be the one that is not far down the street.

It can be the state representative who votes on state legislation that affects their children’s schools. It could be their city council who is zoning their neighborhood and figuring out what their water pipe system might be. Maybe their mayor, so even if someone is living in a state where the presidential campaign may not really engage, they still have the ability to participate. I think those opportunities are there for everybody and it is about taking them, reaching out, and taking part because that is how it gets better.