"Trump has 'f**k-you’ money”: Mark McKinnon on the appeal of outsider candidates, Clinton’s primary strategy and potential Iowa surprises

Salon talks to longtime campaign strategist McKinnon about his new Showtime documentary series "The Circus"

Published February 1, 2016 4:17PM (EST)

Donald Trump   (AP/Patrick Semansky)
Donald Trump (AP/Patrick Semansky)

There have been a number of great behind-the-scenes campaign documentaries over the years, but they’ve all premiered long after the elections were over. The 2014 film “Mitt” depicted a funny, relaxed, surprisingly life-like Mitt Romney, but the campaign and the film’s producers agreed to hold it back until the election was over.

“And they all regret that decision — including Mitt Romney,” says Mark McKinnon, a longtime Republican campaign strategist and one of the producers of the new documentary series “The Circus” that will air weekly on Showtime through the November election. “They know now that people would have gotten a different and better and more honest picture of Mitt Romney if they had shown that film earlier.”

That up-close-and-personal view of the candidates is the driving forces behind “The Circus,” which premieres Sunday evenings and airs throughout the week on Showtime’s streaming platforms. In the half-hour series, McKinnon and “Game Change” authors John Heilemann and Mark Halperin show the candidates not just at rallies and in formal interviews but also in hotel lobbies and on their campaign busses.

On the eve of the Iowa caucuses, we caught up with McKinnon to talk about the series and the state of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Was the main idea behind “The Circus” to provide a backstage view of the election?

So much happens in campaigns that voters never see that’s interesting and entertaining and informative. The only way to see that previously has been in a documentary six months after the election. The concept of “The Circus” isn’t just that we’re showing documentary-style footage but that we’re doing it almost as it happens.

Were there particular documentaries like The War Room” or Mitt” that you looked at for the kind of vibe you wanted?

Yeah, there were several documentaries that were inspirations for this. One was “Journeys with George” that Alexandra Pelosi did in 2000, which turned the cameras back on the press. There’s another really good documentary called “...So Goes the Nation” about the 2004 election that was directed by Adam Del Deo and James Stern.

I haven’t seen that one.

It came out a while after the election and was very well done, but not a lot of people saw it. They figured out that the election in 2004 was likely to be decided in Ohio, and they focused on characters there like a field director and a press secretary. There are a lot of characters in campaigns that you can build narratives around besides the candidates. And I thought the “Mitt” documentary was very good. The interesting thing was that they did it with the caveat that they couldn’t show it until after the election.

They miscalculated on that. They would have been a lot better off to have shown it before the election.

Exactly. Part of the idea of “The Circus” was to provide an opportunity to see that perspective. We’ve already gotten comments about the first few episodes from people who said, “I didn’t know Chris Christie was like this” or “I didn’t know Jeb Bush was like that.” People have told us they’re getting more substantive information about the candidates from “The Circus” than they have from the debates.

In the early episodes, you’re shooting in three different places at the same time. How are you keeping a consistent look and feel?

A company called Left/Right is our production partner and is just fantastic. They have a ton of experience doing quick high-caliber, turn-around projects. It’s terrifying for a network to sign on for something that they’re only going to see a few hours before it goes up, but David Nevins at Showtime absolutely embraced the idea and went all in for it. He has a production background and understood what it would take to do the show. Showtime had done something similar with “A Season with Notre Dame” that was weekly.

What has your production schedule been? Are you trying to bank a certain number of segments by a certain day every week, or is looser than that?

We’ve been learning that as we go. The editors would love for us to have most of the stuff done by Wednesday, but we’re discovering that the premium that we’re placing on timeliness is even more important than we thought it would be. Even by Thursday, some of the stuff we shot Monday already feels dated. We shot stuff Saturday night that’s in the episode that aired on Sunday.

Is the plan to stick with 30-minute episodes, or can you go longer or shorter?

In theory we can, but want to stick to the half-hour format. We have had good material that we haven’t been able to use, but that’s not always going to happen.

Why don’t you go online with some of that?

We’re talking about it. We shot some stuff with Marco Rubio two weeks ago about boxing. I don’t know anything about boxing, but he knows a ton about boxing. The crew guys had shot a lot of boxing stuff in the past and got into a great back-and-forth with Rubio about boxing, and we’re trying to figure out a place online or maybe in a boxing documentary for that.

Is this the first time you’ve been really involved in Iowa and New Hampshire without working on a particular campaign? What has that been like?

Oh, yeah. I’m enjoying it more. I could not do another campaign for a candidate. I just couldn’t do it. It has been great this time to take in the whole experience without having to focus on one candidate. In some ways, it’s more work than a campaign, but it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.

You appear on “Morning Joe” and other shows a lot, but is it different being on screen and being a producer?

Yeah, it is. It wasn’t my ambition initially to be in the show, but David Nevins at Showtime felt very strongly about the three of us being in the scenes and being tour guides. There’s a lot going on.

Iowa has not had much influence in the last several elections on who gets the Republican nomination, going to the right for candidates like Rick Santorum. Is this year different?

We don’t know yet. There’s a high potential for surprise and I don’t know what that will be — maybe that Marco Rubio performs really well or that Ted Cruz bounces back. That’s one of the things that’s compelling about doing a real-time documentary.

If you knew right now that Donald Trump would not get the nomination and you had to offer a best guess for how it happened, what would that would be? Someone rising up on Super Tuesday?

There’s a theory that holds some water that somebody from the establishment lane will emerge after Iowa and New Hampshire, and there could be a quick flight to that person. A lot of the people who like the establishment candidates would rather see any establishment candidate than someone like Trump or Cruz. That could shake out on Super Tuesday.

People have been looking at polling the last few weeks and noting the establishment candidates are collectively polling below Trump, but momentum counts for a lot once the primaries start. Do you subscribe to that idea?

I completely, 100 percent agree with that. The Clinton campaign is holding up South Carolina and downplaying Iowa and New Hampshire because they’re up 60-30 in South Carolina. In 2000, McCain went from 25 points down to five points up in South Carolina in two days. The conventional wisdom can go out the window in a split second.

There are two theories about Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. One is that they’re appealing to the same outsider sensibility, and the other is that they’re appealing to very specific, very different quirks of Republican and Democratic primary voters. Is there one of those that you think makes more sense than the other?

There’s a real parallel to the Perot race in 1992. I’ve gone back from time to time and looked at the polling fundamentals in that race and compared them to today to get an understanding of the electoral and environmental dynamics. There’s a huge opportunity this year for someone like a Ross Perot. The difference this year is that it’s not an independent candidate; it’s Trump and Sanders running under their own parties.

Looking back at Perot data, did he flame out or did he always have a low ceiling?

He flamed out. If not for a couple of incidents that knocked him completely off message, I think Ross Perot or someone like him could have won that election. If you look at data from a year ago you might not have said it would be Trump, but the idea of an outsider business person attacking the establishment and big money looked very possible.

Do you see signs that Washington is coming around to the idea of a Trump presidency?

People are conveniently adapting to the practical realities. I get a sense that a lot of establishment types who were initially horrified at the prospects of a Trump candidacy are increasingly saying, “Well, he’s not that bad.” They see him as a guy who would respond to their input where somebody like Cruz maybe wouldn’t.

I see some disconnect between anxiety about Mitt Romney’s money and his car elevator and Trump’s ostentatious behavior not harming him in the same way. Is that something we’re just not seeing yet because the people who would be bothered by that aren’t Republican primary voters?

I think the distinction is that Trump has “fuck you” money.

Somebody’s been watching [Showtime's] “Billions.”

Romney was wed to those interests. He was surrounded by lobbyists and insiders. Trump, by self-funding and by attacking those interests, is viewed as independent. I think that’s a big factor.

If Hillary Clinton loses Iowa and New Hampshire, do you think the press narrative will shift to the question of whether she is heading for a 2008-like collapse?

Yeah, there’s no question about it. There’s already some of that happening, some suggestion that it could cripple her. Can you remember the last candidate who lost in Iowa and New Hampshire and went on to win the White House?

Bill Clinton in ‘92.

I actually forgot about that! Watching what happens with Hillary after Iowa and New Hampshire will be really interesting.

She hasn’t been featured on “The Circus” as much as other candidates, though the two episodes I’ve seen isn’t much of a sample. Do you think you’ll have the same level of cooperation with her campaign that you’ve had with some of the others?

The first episode was the outsiders, and the second one was the Republican establishment candidates. She appears in this newest episode. The Clinton campaign has been very helpful, and they get what we’re doing. It’s not complete access, but I think that will evolve over time.

Institutionality could take over pretty quickly. This is a weekly show, and Clinton won’t want it to become a series about her opponent.

You’re exactly right. I think the fact that there was a lot of Bernie Sanders in the first episode was something that got their attention.

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By Scott Porch

Scott Porch is an attorney and contributor to The Daily Beast, Kirkus Reviews, and Salon. He writes about American history, politics, and culture and is writing a book about social upheaval in the 1960s and '70s. Twitter: @scottporch

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