The Midweek Mop-Up With Kirsten Kukowski

‘Joe Biden has to prove that he has an answer, and I'm not convinced he's shown that quite yet.’

After last week’s oh-so-fun and informative conversation with Mo Elleithee, we’re turning to the other side of the aisle this week for a mop-up on the RNC with the 2016 convention communications director, Kirsten Kukowski. 

KK—as she is known to all of us—was the RNC press secretary for years and communications director for Scott Walker’s presidential run. She’s from Minnesota and has worked in Wisconsin political circles for decades. She is a true Midwestern Republican who is now the founder and president of K2&Co. I worked with KK at the RNC. We shared an office. We got a puppy together. We fought a lot and ate a lot of Thai takeout on the floor of my apartment, and went on a road trip to Canada together after the 2016 convention. KK is the closest thing this only child has ever had to a big sister. (She would want me to mention here that she is, in fact, younger than me, but that’s hardly the point, Keeks!) 

When it comes to Republican party communications strategy, KK is who I want to hear from. So let’s dive in!

Sarah: Gotta start with your first convention?

Kirsten: So mine isn't going to go back as far as Mo's, but it was the 2008 McCain convention in Minnesota, Minneapolis. My first convention speech that I actually got to sit in the seats and watch was Sarah Palin. The whole "lipstick on a pig" one. And then it was my job to go and do a bunch of earned media around "lipstick on a pig," and it took off from there. 

Sarah: So we now have two COVID conventions under our belts. From the perspective of the comms director of the 2016 convention, which things went better because of the changes that they had to make and which things suffered?

Kirsten: I actually really enjoyed the new formatting this year. But, you know, my perspective is a little warped because I was in the trenches and dog tired in 2016, and our world had been turned on its head because Donald Trump had become the nominee. And so it was very nice to be able to sit at my house and watch and pay attention. But I've actually heard that from most people in my life, too, who really enjoyed being able to kind of just sit in the comforts of their own home and kind of pay attention the way that they want to pay attention. I also thought the production value was pretty good. And I actually had somebody who goes back to the Reagan years who made a comment to me last night that we should leave this up to the TV producers from here on out. And I don't disagree with her on that. 

I think that the candidates probably struggled a little. As you see, Biden didn't really get a quote-unquote "bounce" out of his convention. And I don't know that Trump really will, either. I think part of that is because a lot of the earned media stuff that I was tasked with doing in 2016—making sure that the local reporters in Wisconsin, the local reporters in Pennsylvania, local reporters in Michigan are there and they're being given news to cover. I'm not sure that was executed this time. And so how do you give that kind of localized news to the battleground state reporters in a digital convention? 

Sarah: Also there's some camp counselor aspect to this when it comes to being the comms director for a live event and getting the reporters around to places, handing them literal paper with the speeches and talking points. "Now we're going to go here," and "here's your schedule today." And none of that was possible this time.

Kirsten: Right. And we really had gotten very good at that. You know, in 2016 we had this media row that I'm quite proud of.  It was that package deal of this big event, and you have a captive audience. And so you make the most of it and you're right. It is a camp counselor mentality and the reporters are kind of at your mercy in this huge event at a huge venue with a lot of security restrictions. And so "here's your itinerary for the day!" That worked very well, but this time around, timing and COVID, I think, prevented that. 

But I will say I noticed that the RNC did a really good job with their everyday people drawing from battleground states. They had the truckers and loggers from Minnesota on, they had, I forget who it was, but they had somebody from Wisconsin on. They seem to have somebody from a battleground state on most nights to try to get some of that localized attention. So I did notice that as maybe where it could go if we were to continue with this model.

Sarah: Running with that, I want to talk about what’s evolving, regardless of COVID. You're talking about the emphasis that you put on local news, but in even just four years, a lot's changed in terms of where people are getting their news. What do you think has changed the most in the last four years?

Kirsten: You know, it's interesting because I think it even started changing a little bit in 2016. So I put emphasis on local news. That's my background. And there's still a fair amount of local news, especially in the traditional battleground states. So I still think people get their news that way to a certain extent. But in 2016, we started seeing a shift and, I think, it's even happened more. You have the more niche outlets that are on one side or the other, or they're catering to a certain age range or other demographic. And so we had made room for those kinds of niche outlets to cover in media row in 2016. And that has really expanded in 2020. But I think you're also seeing, for instance, C-SPAN's ratings go through the roof. C-SPAN, of all places. I know I'm seeing it anecdotally, just in my friend group, people really questioning and doing some homework on where they're getting their news.

Sarah: I've had this theory that even though we didn't see a bounce out of the Biden convention, I still think that they were successful at what their goal was. And that’s because I think their goal was to raise his likability numbers, not to change the poll numbers in a race where 96 percent have already made up their minds. And so what they are doing is just making this a turnout operation, and looking at their voter scores, and looking at those people who are pro-Biden—weakly pro-Biden maybe—and less likely to vote. And they are trying to get them to fall in love with their candidate so that those voters are motivated, and so that when someone knocks on their door, and the turnout operation really turns on, they're lower hanging fruit than they were before the convention. 

Watching the Republican convention, what did you think what their goal was and were they successful at it?

Kirsten: So I think traditionally people believe that conventions should be about maybe more of the middle, right? I think there's an assumption that you have your base, you go into the middle, you have this week to showcase yourself to a broader audience than you normally would have, and you get it that time and attention without having to use normal campaign tactics. I don't think that's what Trump's campaign came in doing. I think they really wanted to motivate their base. I think they really wanted to say if we can get 99.9 percent of the people that support us to go to the polls, then we feel really good about that. So I think that showed in a lot of their content. There was a lot of emphasis on the police and law and order messaging …

Sarah: I think the McCloskeys were the quintessential example of that, with an underline and exclamation point.

Kirsten: Yep. Yep, exactly. So I think that their base probably came away from this convention feeling pretty good. I think they walked away saying, yep, we're with him again. But I also thought it was interesting, and I don't know that Ivanka is the right messenger for this, but I was intrigued by her introduction of her father last night. I thought she was trying to talk not to the base, but to the people who are the Trump voters who are a little squishy right now. They don't like what's happened with his rhetoric over the last four years. Maybe some women who are like, "I really don't like what's happening with the ‘defund the police’ and the Democrats, but I also don't really like Trump." So what do I do? And I thought that Ivanka spoke to them last night when she was saying ‘I don't love how he talks. I don't love how he tweets sometimes, but he is who he is and we know what we're getting.’ 

Sarah: Actually, that's funny because I glossed over Ivanka’s speech in my mind, but I thought something very similar about Trump’s speech. If you ignore what he actually said for a second and just think about the fact that he gave a very disciplined, on-script speech, it was a remarkably similar effect. And I thought that message was exactly for the people you're talking about, who like his policies but really are embarrassed by him. And that was him saying, look, I can stay on script. I do have discipline, so don't you worry about it. But I didn’t even think about Ivanka’s speech, and I think you’re exactly right.

Kirsten: I agree with you on the whole teleprompter thing. To be honest, I actually was kind of bored last night. I thought it was way too long. And he just rattled through all of his accomplishments, which they wanted him to do for exactly the reasons you're saying, which is that a lot of people don't like him, but they like what he's been doing. And so they wanted to say “hey let's talk about all those things he's been doing.” I thought he was boring because he wasn't going off the cuff, doing the random things that I've become so accustomed to, but you're right. He did that on purpose. But I don't know if it'll work, because I don't know if people are paying attention to that the way that you and I are. 

Sarah: Right, and who is watching? Because we know here cares deeply about ratings and they've been about 17 percent down from the Democrats each night. Trump himself has always been the draw. Did people tune in? And even if they tuned in for a moment, once they saw he was on script, not the normal, “what's going to happen next” rally type speech, did they turn the channel? He had to make a choice last night and he chose discipline over ratings. 

Kirsten: Right, right. No, I agree. I do, though, think that again, going back to something we have talked about—that campaigns are about expectations—I think people didn't know what to expect from the Trump convention. And I personally believe that they came out of this, probably with people saying that they put on a pretty good show and that they probably put on a better show than maybe the DNC did. And now it'll be about how they go from here. We always knew Trump and Pence would go on their post-convention travel into battleground states. Pence is going to be in Minnesota today. But now you see Biden starting to make some announcements, and that he's going to be out on the trail. And I think it's interesting. Trump's forcing him to get out there. And I think that the no convention bounce played into that a little bit. Right?

Sarah: Great point. So let's talk, post-convention here for a second. We've got 67 days left. What should the Trump campaign be focused on? You mentioned Minnesota, would you put that on your list of states? On the one hand, they don't need Minnesota if they get Pennsylvania, for instance; on the other hand, if a state's up for grabs, why not go get it? If you were writing them a 67 day campaign plan, how do they win this thing?

Kirsten: I think Minnesota is on the bubble. I think Trump now is at a point where he kind of has to go into maybe the next layer of untraditional battleground states because he is who he is. And because I think that Pennsylvania is probably going to be a tough place for him this time around. You add in the fact that Biden is more of a hometown person there and more comfortable than Hillary had been. And I think that that may be a perfect storm against Trump at this point. I think he's going to spend a heck of a lot of time in the Midwest. And that's why if Minnesota is on the bubble, if you're already in Wisconsin, it's really easy. If you're in the Twin Cities market, you get half of Wisconsin just by going to the Twin Cities. I think they're probably going to do that quite a bit early on to see if they can shore up some of their voters. And then if they can't, maybe then they'll shift once we get a little bit more into September. And then they’ll have to focus a little bit more on the traditional battleground States.

Sarah: Last campaign topic. Women. The gender gap between Republicans and Democrats in presidential years has actually been large for basically our entire careers, but it's been growing. It’s possible it could get close to 30 points this year, which is sort of stunning when you think about it. How does Trump win without women? And what about the new so-called “rage moms”—these suburban, mostly white women who are pissed off right now as they are saddled with childcare, eldercare, disproportionately losing their jobs, and now there’s violent protests in and around their cities—who will they be directing their rage at? 

Kirsten: There's a wide spectrum on this conversation that we should acknowledge—with police shootings, with riots and looting, and with peaceful protests. I think that it has presented a game changing narrative in this election that we don't understand yet. And I think that the gender gap could look different in 60 some days as a result. I'm seeing in Minnesota and Wisconsin, that there are a lot of moms and women who are just very frustrated with the world. And so I know that this feels like a Trump vs. Trump election a lot of the time, but this could make it so that Joe Biden has to prove that he has an answer and I'm not convinced he's shown that quite yet. 

Sarah: Last week, I talked to Mo about whether we will return to a bipartisan moment. But my question to you is, will the Republican party return to what it was and what it comprised before or are we seeing a full realignment and the breakup of the Republican party?

Kirsten: Mo and I ponder the conversation about bipartisanship in politics a lot. And I work with him on a civility poll with Georgetown, full disclosure. But I think that 2024, regardless of what happens in 2020 is going to be very much a fight on that question for the Republican side. I do think that there's a lot of the Reagan Republicans who want to see it go back. And then I think that you're seeing some people, maybe some senators, whose plan is to do Trump 2.0. And so I think that that primary in 2024 is gonna be very interesting regardless. 

I think what I've been seeing is voters don't necessarily believe that Trump equals Republican. What I mean by that is that in a lot of down ballot races, we’re still seeing that candidates very much matter, and it's not just the R tied by their name. So it's not like 2006, at least right now. It's Trump is Trump, not Trump is Republican. So that makes me believe that if Trump were to lose, we’re much closer to a pre-Trump Republican party in 2024 than we are today. 

Photograph by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.