The $100 Million Dinosaur Mark McKinnon says media consultants like him are a dying breed. But as he spends the president's reelection cash and grapples with new technology, he's learning to adapt.
By John Heilemann

(Business 2.0) – George Bush's reigning media strategist isn't what you'd expect--especially if your image of a Republican media maestro was etched indelibly by Michael Deaver and Roger Ailes. To begin with, Mark McKinnon isn't bald or even remotely Mephistophelian. He wears blue jeans to work, has a laid-back sense of humor, and owns part of a nightclub in Austin. The fripperies of power don't seem to interest him much. His office is cramped and windowless; for light he relies on a blue lava lamp and the glow of his Apple display. And then there's this bizarro fact: Before he "walked across the bridge," as he puts it, to work for Bush in 1998, his resume included only Democrats--and not just any Democrats, mind you, but liberal paragons like Michael Dukakis and Texas governor Ann Richards.

McKinnon may be something of a partisan paradox, but his political evolution wasn't what I had in mind when I called on him at Bush-Cheney headquarters in Arlington, Va. No, the evolution I wanted to talk about was that of political media. Since the start of this year's campaign, the Democrats have been hailed for the steps they've taken in using new technology to pursue electoral advantage. First there was the Dean campaign's discovery that the Web and e-mail were powerful organizing and cash-raising tools. And now we have the Kerry campaign following in those footsteps. Meanwhile the Bush operation, to all outward appearances, seems stuck in 1988--employing a media model based on sheer brute force and a welter of negative TV ads.

My suspicion, however, was that appearances were deceiving, that the Bush campaign's strategy is at once subtler and hipper to new media than it seems on first inspection. And after chewing the fat with McKinnon for a while, I can report that my suspicion was correct.

McKinnon, of course, isn't alone when it comes to fashioning Bush's media. He manages a team of a dozen admen, most of them top-tier Republican consultants, the rest from Madison Avenue. (Among the stars from the world of business are Harold Kaplan of Young & Rubicam, whose clients have included KFC, and Vada Hill, the former Taco Bell chief marketing officer behind the talking-Chihuahua commercials.) As McKinnon sees it, their job is simple, at least in theory: "It's about dialing up the volume on what I call the 'big microphone'--all the outlets and tools we have available to amplify our message."

When it comes to traditional TV advertising, McKinnon and his team have cranked the volume all the way up to 11. In the two months after Kerry secured the Democratic nomination in March, the Bush campaign spent over $50 million on television ads alone--more than previous candidates have spent in the course of an entire election. And that was just a warm-up. Between now and the GOP convention in September, the Bushies will probably spend another $50 million--most of it cudgeling Kerry for being a tax-raising, flip-flopping, limp-wristed liberal.

A hundred million dollars is a lot of money, but the airtime it buys is trivial compared with the exposure McKinnon is after. For one thing, Bush's ads are airing primarily in 18 "battleground states" that both sides consider up for grabs. So with every spot, McKinnon is aiming not just at voters but at the national press corps, which has turned dissecting campaign ads into one of its obsessions--and which can confer legitimacy on an ad by making it into news. When McKinnon hits his target, the payoff can be huge. Citing an early, controversial ad revolving around Bush and 9/11, McKinnon says the ensuing media coverage was "worth the equivalent of $6 million to $7 million of extra advertising; 40 million to 50 million people saw the ad who wouldn't have seen it otherwise."

It's here, in his efforts to set off blasts in the free-media echo chamber, that McKinnon's technological savvy is most readily apparent. The very first piece of Bush advertising this year was posted on the Web instead of airing on TV--a new development in the history of presidential electioneering. The number of people who watched the ad online was predictably small, but the attention the spot received in the press was substantial. What McKinnon learned from that experience was twofold. First, the Web now serves as a direct pipeline to every political journalist in America. And second, that at a cost approaching zero, every ad produced by his team can now have national reach, no matter how few times it's aired or in how few states.

Not surprisingly, Kerry has felt the sting of McKinnon's ability to use both new and old media to seize the big microphone. One morning in mid-March, for example, the Democratic candidate arrived in West Virginia to speak to an audience of veterans--only to find a new Bush ad airing in the state, criticizing Kerry for voting against the bill last year that provided $87 billion for U.S. military operations in Iraq. As it happened, McKinnon and his team had produced the ad in less than 24 hours and used a new digital transmission technology to get it on the air in time for Kerry's arrival. When reporters asked about the ad, Kerry coughed up a line that's haunted him ever since: "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it." Within a few hours, McKinnon and his team had incorporated Kerry's reply into a new version of the ad, sent a blast e-mail on the subject to 6 million Bush supporters, and done as much as humanly possible to keep the story of Kerry's remark echoing for weeks to come.

McKinnon cites the West Virginia ad as the most important of the campaign so far: "The media and the technology created a real moment. It drove our message about Kerry, and did it in his own words."

As I listened to McKinnon talk, I couldn't help thinking how different he was from most of the political media gurus with whom I've ever discussed this topic. Stretching back to 1996--the first campaign in which the Web played a part--media aces from both parties have been at pains to prove that they were technologically clueful. From the '96 high-tech dabblings of Lamar Alexander, the first presidential candidate to take part in an online chat ("It's virtual Lamar--we're cyber-announcing!" bellowed his media savant, Mike Murphy), to those of the Dean campaign this year, most such efforts have been painfully self-conscious, plagued by a relentless hey-look-at-me quality. But that's definitely not the case with McKinnon. For him and his team, the point of using new technology isn't to call attention to how clued-in they are. And it certainly isn't to use it as an end in itself. Technology, as McKinnon says, is "just another tool" to be employed in the service of driving home a focused message.

It's far too soon to tell, of course, how far that message has sunk in. As Democrats point out, in tones of mild shock, Kerry appears to have held his ground despite the unprecedented media assault uncorked by the Bush campaign; the race remains incredibly close, its dynamics essentially unchanged. McKinnon, however, cites focus-group testing conducted by Democratic pollsters that suggests that Kerry has suffered more damage than is generally understood. "What their own research shows," he says, "is that people have two perceptions of Kerry: He's a tax raiser and a flip-flopper. Those perceptions came from us, and I believe they're going to stick."

If McKinnon turns out to be right and Bush is reelected, his approach to the changing media landscape--evolutionary, not revolutionary; traditional at its core, but innovative at the edges--will be validated. Yet McKinnon knows that whatever the election's outcome, the world in which he operates is on the brink of transformation. "Look, I know I'm a dinosaur," he says. "In the next couple of election cycles, my job as it's traditionally been practiced will be gone, will be extinct. Because the way we've practiced our craft for years has been broadcast television. And if we stay in that box, we're dead."

McKinnon is certainly right about that, but I suspect he himself isn't headed for the tar pits. He's too smart an animal to acquiesce in his own extinction. As his old friends and clients in the Democratic Party know, he's a man who's proven time and again to be nothing if not adaptable.