FTS Q&A: Matthew Gagnon (Part 1)

Matthew Gagnon is, whether you agree with his politics or not, one of the best political minds to come out of UMaine, certainly in recent years.  His impact on Republican campaigns and strategy reaches Maine, but also dozens of other states, as well.  Currently the Director of Digital Strategy for the Republican Governors Association, Matthew’s career started to blossom in Student Government at the College of our Hearts Always.  We’re sorta political junkies over here at FTS, so we’re gonna do it…A TWO PART FTS Q&A;!  Let’s get to it: we’re here to Fill The Steins with Matthew Gagnon.

Fill the Steins: When did you graduate, if you don’t mind us asking?  What was your major?
Matthew Gagnon: I graduated in 2004, with a B.A. in Political Science.  My concentration was in American Government and International Affairs.  I had a History Minor.

FTS: What dorm(s) did you live in?
MG: I only lived on campus for one semester, but when I was there I lived in Aroostook.  Or, “the roost” as we not-so-affectionately dubbed it.  The giant field behind the building was ideal for impromptu games of ultimate frisbee, football or baseball, and the proximity to York Village was pretty awesome, as back then it was a thriving mini-town over there.  I don’t even know what it is now, but the last time I was on campus it looked like one of those abandoned Chinese cities, devoid of human life.

Anyway, as much fun as having to crawl over puking freshman on my way to take a shower every morning was, I moved off-campus to Orono and Old Town for the rest of my time at the University.

FTS: How’d you get into politics originally?  How did that manifest itself at UMaine?
MG: The High School I came from (Hampden Academy, 20 minutes south of Orono) only had a couple options for people who wanted to get involved in junior wannabe political stuff.  Since all those spots went to the popular jock or the hot, flakey blonde (sometimes stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason), I never really had a chance to get involved.  But a week or two into being on campus at Maine, I was walking to the Union – which at that time had yet to be renovated into the triumph of modern aesthetic neutrality that it is now – and walked by a trash can that had a flier taped on it. 

This flier had what I could only guess was Hulk Hogan’s greased up body, with President Peter Hoff’s head superimposed over it, in a crude pseudo-photoshop mashup.  The flier promised all kinds of rewards – namely beer and women – if you were to join the Student Government and become a Student Senator.  I marched myself up to the third floor of the Union – where the then awesome Student Government offices were – and signed up on the spot.  I found I really enjoyed political things.  The rest is history.

FTS: What was your first political gig after graduating from UMaine?
MG: Well, I had a bunch when I was actually still at Maine.  I was the collegiate coordinator for Victory Maine in the 2nd district during Bush’s first presidential race.  Worked on Olympia’s campaign against Mark Lawrence – who was, almost without apology, a Communist.  Worked on the re-elect when I was graduating. I actually ran for the Maine House as a favor to the party in 2004 as I was graduating, in a race I knew I would lose.  Old Town, where I ran, is 2-1 Democrat, has a mill and a strong union presence, and the fact that I won the student vote didn’t matter as much as it would have mattered in Orono.

But back to your question, my first real post-college job in politics was at a public affairs firm called New Media Strategies in Arlington, Virginia.  There I worked on some Senate and House races, as well as a number of 527s, PACs, and corporations with public affairs interests that they wanted to promote.

The first purely political job (just elective politics and not anything else) was at the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

FTS: In your opinion, what is the State of Maine’s biggest challenge in 2013?
MG: Hate to sound cliché, or that I’m pandering to an audience here, but the largest challenge is the impending demographic winter the state will experience as young people continue to abandon the state, and the population gets older.  Economic growth depends not only on sound public policy, but on population growth.  More people means more consumers, which means more businesses to market to those consumers.  As young people leave, the population stagnates, and on top of no real growth, the people that remain are older, and that requires more government services to support.  With fewer people in their earning years, and more people in their elder years, you get a state budget that is just buried and doesn’t have a chance to really invest in anything.

How do we reverse this problem?  Great question (I would like to thank myself for asking it), since nobody of either party in the state either understands it or has a serious answer to address it.  They just drone on endlessly about the need for “more jobs” to attract young people, and then move on.  The real answer is to develop “anchors” of economy and culture that are attractive to young people.  Instead of trying to save dying industries that have no future, we should be investing in and focusing on developing incubators for technology companies (just as an example) and jobs that young people are interested in actually doing.  We should be attempting to develop a few real centers of culture with vibrant populations and diverse entertainment options, etc.

Or, in short, we should try to understand (for once) what young people actually want, and attempt to build something that meets their needs.  We do that, the economy grows, jobs grow, wages rise, and everybody wins.

FTS: You’re obviously very much into the digital strategies of campaigns; what are the big trends you’re seeing in that regard?  What’s the future of digital politics looking like?
MG: Trends in digital?  Well, the use of data is sort of the consensus answer to your question that you’ll hear people like me drone on about a lot.  By that we usually mean using advanced strategies to find you, market our campaigns to you, and organize you into an activist community to help get the people we want elected in office.

When I explain to people how we accomplish that, what we can already do, and what we will be able to do in the future, they are usually horrified.  Not because anything “bad” is happening, but rather because they were unaware just how much we know about people, and what we are able to do with it.  As an example, a smart campaign will take a voter registration file, which has a list of all the registered voters in a state, their addresses, etc., and they will marry it with a data pulled from canvassers who go door to door, collection of consumer data, social media data, data from allied sources (detailed information on gun owners and activists, or people who signed up for a gay rights campaign), and countless other locations, to build out a real “FBI File” on you as a voter. 
We can then use that rich data to model voters, make assumptions about people we don’t have good data on, target you online for advertisements, organize you into groups that can raise money or knock on doors, and so on and so forth. 

The next big trend that people aren’t talking about yet will be, in my opinion, the marrying of data with campaign technology, so that the data better informs decisions in a campaign’s political department, communications department, etc.  Right now, there is still a disconnect there.

FTS: Do you ever think about getting back into the work of just one campaign, perhaps in your home state, as opposed to overseeing the strategy for dozens of campaigns across the country?  Do you feel the pull to run for yourself?
MG: Well I routinely consult for individual campaigns, and frequently do that for Maine candidates, so I already get to do that a little bit.  That’s the fun part of politics.  The nature of working in this business is very flexible, and you have an opportunity to drive your own ship.

That said, about 650,000 times a year, I consider dropping it all, moving back home and just starting up my own firm to make a living in the state I love the most.  Honestly, I think I have one or two election cycles left in me before I do just that.  People in my business have a tendency to retire from the game in their mid to late 30s, so I’ll be due for that after the next presidential election.

And no, I have no real desire to run for office myself.  I feel that I have a much better opportunity to make an impact on the country by having a hand in races all across the country, rather than one seat.  Next year, I’ll be working on 36 gubernatorial races, and will likely consult for a number of other campaigns.  That’s a chance to do something you just can’t do by yourself in a political office.  And frankly, I have no desire to “be something” or have a title of any kind.  Maybe someday I’ll feel differently, but not now.

FTS: We’re big fans of Senator Susan Collins over here at Fill The Steins.  Do you think there’s more to her career than Maine’s senior Senator? Is she a candidate for a Cabinet post?  VP?  President? 
MG: I had the distinct pleasure of working for her on the Hill in her Washington office, so I’m a fan as well.

I’d leave the question of her future elsewhere to her, but I would note that she has been considered for other positions a number of times, and seems – at least from my limited observation – to prefer to stay where she is.  She’s in a position of enormous influence in the Senate, particularly as one of the body’s chief dealmakers, and that gives her a singular distinction.  She has gained an awful lot of seniority over the years, and has more than stepped out of Olympia’s shadow in my opinion, and I think you’ll see her continue to serve the people of Maine in the Senate for a long time.  Higher federal office, like VP or president, is an interesting idea, but the complicated physics of party nominations makes that a somewhat difficult thing to imagine.

FTS: What’s one key piece of advice that you would give to Maine’s GOP?  Maine’s Democrats?
MG: Do what is hard.  You can apply that advice to just about anything.  Maine is in a very difficult situation, from budgets to taxes, to economic base, to demographics, and the solutions to those problems – the real ones – are frequently going to be the unpopular but necessary ones.  Doing what is hard in order to do what is right is something I wish desperately that both parties would do.  Take the unpopular position.  Work with the person from the other side that is universally disliked by your own side.  Take on a sacred cow in your own ideology and don’t apologize for it. 

They do it sometimes, and I am actually very impressed with what my own party did when it took control of the legislature in 2010, but I think everyone could do a better job of putting the welfare of the state above their own personal interests.

This is where we put the TO BE CONTINUED note…  Check back Friday for the exciting conclusion to the FTS Q&A; with Matthew Gagnon.  Cheers!


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