Dick Wirthlin’s letter to Evan Mecham

Dick Wirthlin

This long letter from Dick Wirthlin to Evan Mecham served as my guide while I was press secretary for the governor. I had been recommended for the job by my friend Maureen Reagan, who was then co-chair of the Republican National Committee. After my initial interview with Mecham, but before accepting the position, I called Maureen who suggested that I talk to Wirthlin, and she told me to wait for a call. Within minutes, Maureen had set up a conference call between the three of us. I knew his name, of course, but that phone call was my first meeting with him. Wirthlin is widely recognized as the political genius who steered Ronald Reagan’s two successful campaigns for governor of California, then the two campaigns for President.

In the phone call, I learned that Wirthlin was already conducting a public opinion poll in Arizona to determine Mecham’s strengths and weaknesses for what then seemed an almost certain recall election. In mid-September, Wirthlin was in Arizona and we met several times. I thought that having a political strategist as brilliant and experienced as Wirthlin would certainly be enough horsepower to convince Governor Mecham to adopt a lower profile with the news media.

As Wirthlin was preparing his poll results and recommendations for the governor on how best to move forward, he and I had one fairly long meeting with Governor Mecham. Wirthlin recommended, and the governor agreed, that in the future Mecham would greatly reduce his contacts with the press, that he would hold press conferences only to announce positive developments, and that I would handle everything else with the news media, especially including anything negative that would cause another brush fire if it came from Mecham. It didn’t last long. Mecham read Wirthlin’s recommendations, but he was soon back to his old ways of verbal combat with reporters. However, I continued to refer to Wirthlin’s recommendations, incorporating ideas into speeches and press releases. For an example of how I used Wirthlin’s letter, see the 1988 State of the State Address. For the Wikipedia page on Wirthlin, click here.

– Ken Smith

October 1, 1987

The Honorable Evan Mecham
Office of the Governor
1700 West Washington
Phoenix, AZ 85007

Dear Governor:

This may be a long letter, but it is an important one. Our survey last week for the Arizona Republican State Committee indicates you are in a politically vulnerable position. On the one hand, the research measures a significant core of loyal support for you. But, on the other hand, it also reflects the intensity and breadth of opposition which is both mobilized and effective.

Governor, I believe your administration is at an important crossroads. More than any external event or pressure, your actions now and over the next few months will determine your success, or lack of success, as Governor of Arizona.

Frankly, you have worked too hard to be governor to not want to do what is required to assure your success as Governor.

I want to highlight only a few key findings. Moreover, I want to make some recommendations. The recommendations will primarily be political and tactical. But given the course of our findings, the recommendations must be personal as well.

First if the funding is available and if the organization wherewithal exists, there is a sufficient pool of voters to assure the success of the recall effort. Over 40% of the state has already been asked to sign a petition, 26% of the respondents say they actually signed the petition. This would mean the recall effort should already be at or slightly above the 216,000 plus signatures required with five weeks more to go. In other words, should the signatures qualify (and should the recall effort satisfy all the legal tests), there will be another election, likely in late spring.

Second, if the election were held today, Carolyn Warner receives 38% of the total vote, you follow with 30%, Jim Kolbe at 16%, and Eddie Basha trails with 7%. Among just the firmly committed you hold a razor-edge two point advantage. (There may well be a different set of candidates which might generate a different set of results. This is the one combination our research budget allowed us to test.)

Even with more or fewer candiates, your current support may not, as things now stand, exceed the mid-thirties range. Carolyn Warner does have an unfavorable rating already of 33% and her candidacy is not without problems also.

Your core support groups include:

  • voters over 55 years old, especially older men,
  • Republicans over 45,
  • people who have lived in the state longer than 20 years,
  • the areas of the state outside Maricopa and Pima counties,
  • people with a high school education or less,
  • Latter-Day Saints, and
  • older Republicans.

The core strength of your opposition is with:

  • voters aged 18-44,
  • Hispanics,
  • people with some college and post-graduate education,
  • Catholics,
  • people who lived in the state less than 10 years,
  • Democrats,
  • people who disapprove of the Martin Luther King holiday decision, and
  • people who have signed the recall petition.

There is a narrow six to seven month window of opportunity for you to improve your electoral position with:

  • people 45-54 years old,
  • people who have lived in the state 10-20 years,
  • Protestants
  • people with only moderate interest in the recall, and
  • younger Republicans.

This coalition analysis should help drive your scheduling and will be discussed in terms of specific recommendations later.

Third, we asked people an open-ended question that elicited what they most like and dislike about you. People admire your decisive leadership and your honesty and sincerity. These personal mentions outweigh specific mentions of your handling of the issues. Your fight against drugs remained first on the issue mentions.

On the other hand, the chief reason people give for not liking you is that you are viewed as too outspoken, too stubborn, and too impulsive in what you say and how you say it. It would be wrong to believe that these are only concerns of your opponents. Concern about your impulsiveness was mentioned most often by some of the groups with whom your support is the strongest.

The Martin Luther King holiday decision crystallized strong opposition to you among voters under 44 years old. (Unfortunately, questionnaire length did not allow us to test various options of how to best present the decision.)

By a small margin, people agree with you that the press has indeed been unfair. However, although your supporters agree with you, your opponents believe the press has been fair. So, you do not really pick up any new support based on people’s perception about the press.

Basically, the people of Arizona are deeply divided into very stable pro-Mecham / anti-Mecham coalitions. Support and opposition are very intense. The core Mecham support is about 33% of the electorate; core opposition is about 40%. To prepare for the possibility of a recall election, immediate and positive action is required to enhance your public perception and electoral standing.

Having reviewed selected key findings, let me make some observations about areas on which to concentrate.

As to the issue agenda, associating you with working to stop the flow of drugs in the state should be further developed. It is already the issue of highest consensus in the state. Further, your action of pushing for tougher sentencing and more money for drug education and rehabilitation is widely recognized. There should be scheduling and speaking possibilities which allow you to build on this accomplishment.

The second issue which you can push with credibility and merit is your program to encourage a favorable business climate which in turn generates meaningful and well-paid jobs for Arizonans. The favorable climate for small business helps in this regard and you should continue to highlight ways the state can attract new and clean industry and build the strength of already established businesses. It is critical that you speak of jobs and growth not in abstract terms but in terms of what it means to people — better jobs, higher wages, the ability to provide children with better education, and more comfortable homes.

In addition to the issues of drugs and economic growth and development, you need at least one major plank that highlights the fact that you care about people. I have referenced this as your “offset issue.” Two issue areas that are good candidates for this kind of issue — education and cleaning up the environment.

Arizonans express a good deal of interest in improving education; 63% believe more money should be spent on education. Your positive initiatives in these areas might well be developed and promoted. An effective activity might connect the high-tech companies in Arizona to the public education system. Governors have had good success in other states by pushing industry/education cross-fertilization programs.

It is imperative, Governor, that you not attempt to deal with all issues. Highlight three major issues that you would like to undertake next year. The greatest power to persuade and achieve major accomplishments as the Governor of the state comes by following the simple dictum: Focus your resources on a limited number of highly important goals to both you and the electorate.

Given the hostility that is expressed among many of the teachers in the state and at some of the educational institutions, you may want to look for other offset issues. One that immediately comes to mind is to initiate programs to clean up and purify both the air and water pollution in Arizona. This is particularly a good issue to convince young people of the that “Ev Mecham doesn’t wear horns.”

In any event you should examine these two issue clusters and other potential issues that you feel strongly about and want to foster that will send a message to the people of the state that you care about them.

In terms of your scheduling operation, you should continue to extend your schedule outside of Maricopa and outside of Pima. A disproportionate share of your support is coming from outside of Maricopa. But remember that almost six out of ten voters live in Maricopa; you can’t ignore that base.

Particular emphasis should be given by you and your staff to determine how you can strengthen your support among Republican women and younger Republicans.

Specifically, the state party should be of assistance to assure that the Arizona voter tape has age information (at least coded for voters over 50) and if available, the date each person registered. As your support derives from older voters and long term residents of Arizona, this information would be essential to maximize your targeting (mail and phone) efforts in contacting “persuadable” voters.

A key step right now is to solidify the base of support you enjoy in the state and to rebuild credibility as a political figure with a viable base. You should be setting up meetings of supporters, holding “people events,” such as small barbecues and other events that allow you to reestablish contact with your supporters.

On a selective basis these “people events” can also be used to begin raising the finances essential to provide you with the needed resources to run a successful recall campaign.

Fifty-three percent of the state agreed with the statement that you are not controlled by special interests like other politicians. Your schedule and public contact should give additional weight to helping translate your independence into a political asset. Further, this type of scheduling and early organizational contact will be an important step in preparing for a possible recall election.

Governor, there is a simple message in the survey data — people are looking for a different style of leadership. With the single and important exception of the Martin Luther King holiday, the state is not polarized by your actions or issue positions as much as by your leadership style. Remember the old saying, “what got you here isn’t what keep you here.” What will keep you in the Governor’s office does not require a change in your agenda but it will require a change in the way you dela with the electorate, articulate your vision, and use the media to support your agenda and not destroy it.

The most powerful lever a Governor or President holds is a simple one: You, more than anyone else in the state, can determine the state’s agenda. You alone articulate for the state its goals and aspirations and hopes. To the extent that those goals and aspirations conform with the majority’s own hopes, to that extent you build grassroots support. Clearly, if you could sit down with every Arizonan and explain to him what you hope to do, you would have considerably more support in the state than you do now. But it is the media which acts as the public megaphone which broadcasts “what you say and what you do.”

I spent a good deal of my time last Monday with your staff in discussing some specific things that should be done to assure that the media carries your message and not their message.

The worst of all media strategies is to attempt to make the media a whipping boy. As I indicated above, there is a large proportion of the Arizona electorate who believe that the media has been unfair to you. It would be the most serious mistake, however, for you to assume from this that you can confront and criticize the media. That kind of activity will only guarantee that the megaphone will be more distorted and allow the media to “credibly” paint a caricature, and not a pleasant one, of Governor Ev Mecham.

I strongly urge you that you do not respond to the media’s poking and jabbing. Little is to be accomplished when you call them to correct a story. If a story has misstated the facts they should be corrected, but not through you. Use Ken Smith.

It would also be extremely helpful in my view, Governor, if you could control more rigorously the environment in which you meet the press. For example, call press conferences only when you have something to announce that is newsworthy. Take questions from the press at that juncture, but limit the amount of time you spend with them. Arrange your positioning and travel to and from various events where press will be present so that they do not surround and badger you afterwards. It is these “curbside” press conferences that more than any other thing gave created problems for the President and from what I understand for you as well. Give Smith the responsibility of determining how your entrances and exits can be made gracefully without having the press surround and snap at you like a pack of hungry hounds.

In sum, it will be important for you to demonstrate over the next seven months that the last eight months on the job have been an important learning experience for you.

Further, while you should be properly pleased with what you have accomplished, nevertheless, you will need to signal your willingness to change to be more effective. A visible and public gesture will help. For example, given the concerns about a small handful of your appointments, why not establish a senior panel if advisors, including some people not typically supportive, to review with you selected applicants. Quite candidly, people are looking for a more inclusive personnel blend to incorporate alternative perspectives into your administration.

Right now the state is evenly split, with 49% saying they believe you have learned from recent experiences and affirm you can still be effective. But 49% disagree with this statement!

You have the ability to set the course of opinion on this question. Perhaps one way of beginning is to acknowledge the legitimate differences some have with your administration, but then move on to the three major programs outlined above that will send the message more strongly than anything else you do or say that the Mecham administration is constructively preparing Arizona to meet well the challenges of the Twenty-First Century.

You have a tremendous responsibility that you have worked honorably to uphold. But to accomplish your agenda for the people of Arizona, you have to continue to serve as Governor.

Change does not mean compromise of principle.

If I can help, I would like to contribute to your success as Governor.


Richard B. Wirthlin,
The Wirthlin Group
McLean, Virginia