Mark McKinnon is a man of many hats. Cowboy hats, that is, which is his signature look.
He’s done a lot of things in his life, but he’ll probably always be best known for his association as an ad man for George W. Bush‘s presidential campaigns.
He’s also the co-creator, co-executive producer and co-host of “The Circus,” a weekly Showtime documentary series on the presidential campaign. The show is a co-production between Showtime and Bloomberg Politics.
FloridaPolitics.com spoke with McKinnon last week from Columbus, Ohio, on Super Tuesday III. We mentioned to him how we’ve seen him twice on the campaign trail this year – A week earlier at the Tampa Convention Center for a Marco Rubio rally, and in Derry, New Hampshire when Barbara Bush came out in a much-publicized announcement for a campaign appearance with son Jeb.
Florida Politics: You’ve been constantly covering the campaign for The Circus since mid-January. Do you ever get home these days?
Mark McKinnon: I get home about one day every couple of weeks. This has been such a circus, and a fascinating one. We got really lucky picking this election to do this, but there’s been no absence of drama.
So yeah, I’ve been kicking around in New Hampshire like you were, in Florida where you are, in Columbus today. Sometimes I don’t know until 11 p.m. at night where I’m going to be, which was the case before last, where I thought I was going to Florida, then I got a call that Romney was going to be with (John) Kasich, so I just flipped my plans at midnight and went to Ohio.
FP: How big of a crew do you have to capture so much footage for your show each week, and get it edited each Sunday night?
MMK: Well, it’s a massive challenge. When I pitched this to television networks – I could write a whole book about how that works – I had the idea 10 years ago. That’s how long it took to get on.
The real challenge, and what scared most television executives, was this notion of doing it weekly. Because they’re used to seeing shows months ahead of time. In this case, Showtime only sees it hours before it airs, and at that point, they can’t change much. But to me, the whole idea behind the concept was to produce a great documentary that shows this fascinating world of a presidential campaign. The public sees maybe 1 percent of what really goes on the news. So there’s all this other stuff that happens which is really interesting and entertaining and informative, so I thought it’d be fascinating and dramatic for viewers to see this and see sort of human side of politics and what these people go through. Also importantly, I thought it needed to be in real time as much as possible. So that people were not only seeing an interesting world, but seeing it as it was unfolding, so that it was topical and they feel like they were kind of up on what’s happening. I thought the political junkies would love it — which they do — but people who are casually interested in politics would love it as well because of the way in which every Sunday night they can tune in and in a way that’s much more interesting than a Sunday talk show or reading the newspaper, they can get up to speed on what’s happening.
We have 60 people working on this and four crews spanning out across the country, and we have to make a full-blown documentary every week and then wake up every Monday morning, and make another one. So, the production challenge, I mean, it’s a crushing schedule. The logistics of managing of the schedules and moving these crews around is incredible, but Showtime gave us the best in the business, and we’re really excited to be doing it.
FP: One of the most interesting scenes to date in the show is one I viewed online dealing with the Trump phenomenon and the general freaking out by the Republican Party establishment. You showed this private lunch in D.C. with of GOP establishment figures, lamenting the rise of Trump and discussing, what if anything can be done about it (Those six men were Ron Hohlt, Vin Weber, Ron Kaufman, Ed Rogers, Ed Goeas and Mike Duncan).
MMK: That scene has been one of the most provocative of the season, and it’s gotten a huge response. The idea was that we would find what’s left of the establishment and take them to lunch, and it turns out that there’s six guys left who are the establishment, and we found them, and they’re right out of central casting: They couldn’t be less diverse (laughs). It’s just a bunch of old white guys who have been around Washington forever, and they’re super smart, and they’ve been in every presidential campaign as far back as you can remember, and they’re movers and shakers, and they’re the go-to guys. If you randomly picked 100 people and said who were the six most influential guys, they’d picked these six guys.
But the fascinating thing was they agreed to join us at a classic Washington restaurant with black leather and chrome and martinis, but they just opened up and they were completely candid, which you feel sort like you dropped in on a Mafia Boss meeting. But what was surprising about it was A) how candid they are in the situation they find themselves in, but B) that they were very clear that they don’t have a clue about what to do. They have no clear idea or consensus how to approach it. In fact, all six at the table basically had six different ideas on what to do.
FP: Your show began in January, when there was so much interest heading into Iowa. We’ll see how soon this race turns into a one-on-one race between the Democratic and Republican nominee. Right now there’s still so much to cover, but do you have any concerns when it slows down to two people and one race. Will the show be able to maintain its intensity?
MMK: That’s a great question and it’s something that we’re talking a lot about. It’s clearly going to be a different kind of show. It’s going to have to evolve and it’ll be different. In fact, we were going to take a break after this Tuesday, although the ratings have been so good that Showtime wanted us to do a few more episodes for the primary season, but we’ll take a break after that, until the convention, we’ll do three or four shows during the convention, we’ll take a break in August, and then we’ll roll back in the fall, but yeah, it’s clear to us that it’s going to be a different type of show, because we’re not going to have all of these multiple candidates. It’ll just one-on-one. They’ll kind of be in the bubble, with Secret Service, harder to get access. But there’s a lot of other issues and ideas and themes and things that we can explore that I find fascinating about presidential campaigns. We’ll probably get into sort of more thematic issue based episodes like looking at the issues of church and state, where you can follow the advance teams, see how advance works and see how they set up. Just sort of get into the mechanics of campaigns and see how they work. So there’s lots of material there. But I agree with you A) it’s a challenge for us and B) it’s going to be a different type of show when the general election comes.
FP: I was listening to an interview you did with NPR’s Robert Siegel in December. You talked about how in this current cycle there’s very little return on media dollars anymore in politics because people just don’t believe political advertising. As a guy who’s done this for a living, it’s a really interesting statement for you to make. Do you think this is for all time, or just for this current cycle?
MMK: I think it’s all-time. This election has just put an exclamation point on it.
I was thinking back when I did it for George W Bush. I don’t remember the exact percentage close to 75 percent of the money raised, producing and airing ads for the campaign, and at that time, I thought at least half of that was wasted. I told the campaign, ‘there’s gotta be a better way to use this money.’
When I got the job doing the advertising for George W Bush, I went back to the very beginning of advertising presidential campaigns, to Eisenhower and then studied all the elections since then. I wanted to do due diligence, to make sure I did a good job. So I went back and researched and analyzed that, and what I saw was that over time the advertising really changed. The reason it changed is that its sort of like a host in a virus. The voters get used to seeing something, and after awhile they sort of get used to it. They say, ‘I know what’s going on here, these are politicians who are trying to influence me, and therefore, I see through it,’ so you see over time how advertising that kind of conceptual approach changes and then ultimately gets to the point in recent years.
The bottom line is that in an era when people are just fed up with politics, they think they’ve been lied to, they know that an advertisement is being paid by somebody, so they just assume they’re being lied to, the second they see a political ad they just mentally turn it off and say well this is a lie, so yeah and in this election, the guy who spent the most on ads lost badly and early, and the guy who spent almost nothing is winning.
FP: There’s a whole industry, not just in D.C. but in Tallahassee and all across the country in terms of people making those ads. It’s a pretty radical idea if politicians believe these ads don’t work, right?
MMK: I think what we’re going to see is just more and more emphasis on very creative ways to communicate with voters that aren’t traditional. Donald Trump has been writing the rulebook on that, throwing out the conventional wisdom on how this all works. He has an unusual platform in history, but I do think that candidates are going to look at what has supposedly worked in the past and really rethink how they think their ad dollars in the future, or just their dollars, period.
FP: one of my favorite scenes from The Circus was on the night that Bernie Sanders stunned everyone by beating Hillary Clinton by 20 points, how he took John Heilemann into his hotel room to talk about what happens next. What is one of your favorite scenes?
MMK: My favorite ones are the ones that are just really human moments. The real star of the show this season has been Jane Sanders, Bernie’s wife. She’s just this really, down to earth human character, and it’s been fascinating to kind of see the campaign through her eyes, because the reality is that they got a whole lot further than they ever expected, and so you sort of see this through her eyes, and there’s just a lot of touching, compelling moments when you see her backstage with him, kind of brushing the dandruff off his shoulder and giving him a little peck on the cheek before he goes up onstage and you just see those moments, and they’re really touching.
Another example is I ran into Donald Trump Jr. in Elko, Nevada, and he was really doing his first stump speech on behalf of his father and I just walked into this room backstage, and it was just me and him, and it was just one of those most compelling conversations that I’ve had with anybody on the campaign. He’s a really interesting down to earth guy who I never would have guessed in a million years was Donald Trump’s son if I hadn’t known, and he really clicked with the people there. He’s a big Second Amendment guy. Those are the kinds of example, people and players that are interesting that we’ll continue to focus on.
FP: With the ascendance of Trump, the party seems to be so split. I was at the Pinellas County Lincoln Day Dinner where Nikki Haley denounced Donald Trump and said, “We’re better than that. We’re Republicans. We’re Americans, we’re better than this.” She got some applause, but you could feel the split in the room. As a Republican, your thoughts on what might happen with your party?
MMK: I thought for a while that the Republican Party has been adrift, and that there was no coherent vision about what the future looks like for the party. And it’s been splintering and I’ve predicted that. I think I’ve written columns about the fact that we might have to burn the house down and rebuild it, and I think that’s what’s happening right now.
As you noted with the Haley speech in that room, there’s just a huge division and there’s a lot of heat under the Trump movement, so, I think Republicans are going to take a step back, and no matter what happens, whether he wins the nomination or not, Republicans are going to have to acknowledge there are some powerful undercurrents going on in the country right now, and the Republican Party has failed to recognize or embrace or discover or figure it out and that in order to ever win back the presidency, there’s going to have to be a lot of soul searching. But you know, Trump has demonstrated that people are unhappy about the state of the Republican Party and wants something radically different.
The Circus airs Sunday night on Showtime at 8 p.m. Eastern.