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Mark McKinnon: Politics, Predictions, And Producing The Circus

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Political junkie Mark McKinnon switched from the Democratic Party after meeting George W. Bush, and switched from political advising to creating documentaries after a long career working for many causes, companies and candidates, including former President Bush, Senator John McCain, late former Governor Ann Richards, Congressman Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong and Bono.

McKinnon specializes in behind-the-scenes political documentaries, including The War Room, which tracks the career of former President Bill Clinton, and Mitt, which chronicled former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s doomed run for President. His latest project is the Showtime TV series, The Circus, which McKinnon produces and co-stars in. The former Republican strategist joined Jim Braude and Margery Eagan during WGBH’s Primary coverage in New Hampshire to discuss production and political predictions.

MARGERY: Great to have you here!

MARK: Great to be back, and great to back here in Manchester, a mecca for politics.

MARGERY: So what is it and what have you learned?

MARK: The easiest way to describe this is in three words: real time documentary. In other words, instead of seeing a documentary six months or a year after the election, you’re seeing the documentary unfold as it happens. We roll it up, we shoot Monday through Saturday, —and sometimes even on Sunday— and roll it up every Sunday night. You have the sense of not only seeing behind the scenes of the campaign and not only what’s happening but why it’s happening, and how it’s happening, but also as it’s happening. This was a key for me, in all the discussions I was having with all the television folks that we talked to… they kept saying could you do it once a month, or once a quarter, I said, no, it’s really critical, I think, that the viewers are watching it as it’s happening. I’m now more confident than ever that that’s the key to why people are tuning in.

JIM: By the way, the reason it’s great is that you get to see people that you only see in one way, in the real world, like real human beings. And Mark was bitching before, we should say, about how hard it is to turn it around, he’s complaining to two human beings who create three hours of live radio every day… here’s a little piece, by the way, Mark, you were on Marco Rubio’s campaign bus, is that right?

MARK: Eazy-E, NWA… That’s a whole side of Marco Rubio we never knew… one of the most interesting things about it was that we walked on the bus, and a lot of the people we have working for us come from the sports world, like 24/7, which was on HBO and is the same kind of concept of turning something around that fast. So I explained that to Marco, and he said, oh man, did you guys do the boxing stuff? And it turned out they all did the boxing stuff, and they got into like a 15 minute conversation about boxing, and Marco Rubio knows a ton about boxing.

MARGERY: God, you’d never guess that. When I look at him, he looks like the Eagle Scout in his Junior year in high school.

MARK: He’s talking about rap and boxing. The best part about the show is that people are watching it and saying to me, I feel so much better about the candidates, and that I know a lot more about them when I see this, because you just get a contextual feel for them, other than just the talking points.

JIM: I think I read you saying this, the Mitt documentary so humanized this guy, and the fact that it was after the fact is almost a crime.

MARK: That was the inspiration, a big inspiration for this show.

JIM: Really?

MARK: There are a couple of others, like Journeys with George and So Goes the Nation, but you see that, which was fantastic, and showed this whole side of Mitt Romney that nobody ever saw, but the caveat that they made when they made the documentary, that the campaign and Mitt Romney did, was they said [we] could do this, but [we] could not show it until after the election. They completely regret that decision, they really wish it had shown before. So I said, well, we’ll do it, and we’ll do it before. We’ll give these candidates a real opportunity to show the real human side of who they are before the election.

JIM: If anybody could use this, Hillary Clinton is the person. A humanizing of this woman could change the whole race.

MARK: Absolutely, and as I’m sure you recall, in 2008, the one huge moment that she had that was so powerful was here, [in Portsmouth, New Hampshire], 24 hours before the election here, she was down double-digits, and she had this completely authentic documentary moment where she kind of teared up, showed a vulnerable side, and boom! She wins the election. That’s what people want to see.

MARGERY: So Mark McKinnon, what is Circus focusing on in New Hampshire?

MARK: This next episode, we’re calling it Big Moe. ‘Big Moe’ was made famous by George W. Bush in Iowa, when he came out of Iowa in 1980 and then lost the Big Moe to Ronald Reagan. The question in focus this week is who’s got it, who’s going to keep it, and who’s going to lose it?

JIM: Did anybody get any Big Moe last night in that Democratic debate?

MARK: What a good debate. That’s like the best debate I think I’ve ever seen.

JIM: I know you advise Republicans, if you were an adviser… you were a Democrat when you were young and irresponsible, right? Is there anything Hillary Clinton can do to counter this Wall Street thing, or essentially does she have to live with it, and hope that other issues matter more to people?

MARK: It’s a bit of an Achilles heel in the Democratic Primary, for sure. I think that’s where Bernie has made big inroads. I don’t know how she sheds it, other than… I thought she had some powerful moments when she took it on last night, saying, tell me how anything that I’ve done has actually affected my behavior. And then she kind of turned it on him on a couple votes to say, well, did that affect you?

MARGERY: Mark, you’re a big-time Republican strategist, you have been, anyway… the whole rap, obviously, is that Bernie Sanders may do very well here and he may do very well among young people, and he is, but how does he go on from here, and how do you go across the country with this message? If you were his person, what would be possible for him?

MARK: I think he’s already gone from impossible to possible, and that narrative is changing a lot. I just saw the Drudge Report, and the headline reads, “Tied Up 50-50 Nationwide, Bernie and Hillary” so it’s not just New Hampshire. The whole rap on him, which originally was that he can’t get elected in a general election, actually, almost all the polls now show that he has a better shot than Hillary Clinton does. Think about what’s happening in the country, this dynamic and desire for a disruptor and an outsider, even though he’s obviously been in Congress, in the Senate, but he is seen as somebody who’s not part of the establishment. That’s where the hunger is right now.

MARGERY: You think it’s possible, even though he doesn’t do well with Hispanics, he doesn’t do well with African-Americans?

MARK: I’ll tell you what I think is possible, momentum is everything. Here’s a great example of what momentum can do. In 2000, I came up here with a Texan, and it was not a good cultural fit. We came in the front-runner, and then we lost by 19 points. The most dramatic impact of that result was not so much what happened in New Hampshire, but its effect on South Carolina. The day before New Hampshire, in South Carolina, [Senator John] McCain was down 25 points. The day after he beat us in New Hampshire, he was up 5. A swing of 30 points in one day.

Mark McKinnon is the Executive Producer and Co-Star of The Circus on HBO’s Showtime, and a former political advisor.  To hear his full interview, click on the audio link above.

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