On Polling and the Trump White House: An Interview with Katie Walsh ShieldsKatherine Walsh Shields
Katie Walsh Shields is a Senior Advisor for Data to the Republican Party and an advisor to America First Policies, a 501(c)(4) organization. She previously served as Deputy Chief of Staff for Implementation in the Trump administration, as Chief of Staff of the Republican National Committee (RNC), and in various positions in Republican campaigns across the country.
Harvard Political Review: How has big data changed political strategy during your time in politics?
Katie Walsh Shields: I think that, for the first time, Republicans started to use big data in the 2014 election as it related not only to voter turnout but also to voter persuasion and voter activation — not just in the 72-hour timeframe that Republicans were conditioned to do in ’04 with the Bush [re-election campaign]. We were told for eight years after that that Democrats had beaten us on data, and we spent a lot of time reassessing what data we could collect on folks and what data points we had to help us understand voters. It helps us understand if they were going to vote, how they were going to vote, what issues they cared about.
It also helped us communicate with them in a way that they wanted to communicate. We also took data about whether voters like when we talk to them on the phone, when we knock on their door, or when we respond to them via email to determine how to communicate best with those voters. I think we used data in a whole group of ways in early 2014 that we had not used ever before, and it has been successful for us.
HPR: What specific insights have you gained from working with data, and do you have any examples or surprises?
KWS: I am surprised at how accurate predictive modeling can be. The 2014 election is a good example. We had a Senate race in North Carolina with Thom Tillis, and we had just relaunched our voter score program at the RNC. The national voter score program is a predictive modeling tool that measures how likely a voter is to vote and how likely they are to vote for a Republican. Thom Tillis’s race was a marquee race; he was running to unseat Kay Hagan, who outraised him 3:1. Every public poll leading up to election day told you Kay Hagan was going to win, so even if you go on Real Clear Politics — even today — you would see that during the three weeks leading up to the election, Thom Tillis was down.
On the Saturday before the election, our voter score said that Thom Tillis was going to win. We ended up calling then State Senator Tillis and the [National Republican Senatorial Committee], and we said that we thought Thom was going to win. They said, “That’s great, but do not tell anyone that because we do not want to raise expectations; we haven’t seen a lot to support that.” It ended up that we were able to predict voter turnout and the voter share for Thom Tillis within 1.3 percent. When you are talking about a race with three [million] voters, and you can predict who is going to vote, and who is going to vote for Senator Tillis, within about 30 thousand votes, it is a pretty remarkable showcase.
HPR: What about in 2016?
KWS: In 2016, we were within one percent of voter turnout and vote share in a preponderance of the target states in the presidential cycle, like Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania. We have done a good job of being able to predict voter behavior.
HPR: America First Policies is a 501(c)(4), which some call “Dark Money” organizations because of their exemption [from] much of the mandatory disclosure of contributors. How do you view regulations mandating financial transparency and controlling money in politics?
KWS: I would be for overturning Citizens United and redoing McCain-Feingold and having full transparency in the political process. I would want every organization that is going to be either policy or issue-based or candidate-specific be fully transparent with their donations, both in how they raise it and how they spend it.
HPR: So do you not like that America First Policies is a 501(c)(4)?
KWS: America First Policies works within the rules that are on the books, and I would be in favor of more transparency as it relates to all political organizations, but America First Policies works within the regulations as they currently stand.
HPR: Do you make a distinction between regulations governing transparency and those governing the amount of money an organization or person may contribute?
KWS: If someone writes a check, their name and amount should be disclosed. However, I am not for caps. I think people should be able to give what they want to give to whom they want to give but that it should be disclosed.
HPR: Considering your work on campaigns and your involvement in the Republican Party, how do you see the party’s future? What will the typical Republican voter look like in five or ten years from now, demographically and ideologically?
KWS: When I talk about women in politics, I hear a lot about “women’s issues” or “Hispanic issues” or issues that African Americans would care about. As an American, I think that there are obviously issues that affect some people more than others given where they live or the community they [grew] up in, but we do ourselves a disservice by saying, “These are women’s issues,” or, “These are issues Hispanics care about.”
As a woman, I would be earmarked by saying, “She cares about education and healthcare,” and I think it is somewhat offensive to say that my husband cares any less about education and healthcare than I do. When you talk about what a Republican voter will look like, the Republican voter looks like an American who wants to have a conversation about the direction of the country, and a Republican will always give a better vision of where the country is heading than a Democrat will based upon the ideals and vision of the Republican Party: free markets, lower taxes, strong national security, those kinds of things.
HPR: You served as Deputy Chief of Staff for Implementation at the Trump White House. What was life like there?
KWS: It was incredibly exciting. It was the opportunity of a lifetime and a huge blessing to be able to work in the White House. It was amazing to see all the good you could do in government — whether it came to the executive orders the president was signing on deregulation, or it was working with different industries to help promote issues and causes that were going to help create jobs, like in the workforce development that Ivanka has championed. Seeing the things you could do on a daily basis that were going to help improve Americans’ lives is just breathtaking and is something I will never forget. I will always value how our system works in that you have regular American citizens [working] in that building every day who have dedicated their lives to try to make America better.
HPR: Given your experience there, how do you interpret the media’s portrayal of dysfunction in the White House?
KWS: I think it sells papers and gets clicks. It gets viewership. I do think that the president, unlike other presidents, is not afraid to fire people and is not afraid to change. People elected him. People did not elect anyone who works for him, and it has been an asset that he brings people in, has them serve, and if it is time that someone else can come in and do a better job, the president is not afraid to make that change. That is to the benefit of America, not the detriment.
HPR: How strained do you see the relationship between the White House and the Republican Party?
KWS: I do not think it is strained at all, especially when you look at the country and see the number of primaries the president went into. These candidates all saw the president’s endorsement as a positive. There are Republicans in the party who do not agree with him on everything — particularly his tone — but I think one of the conversations I have with those Republicans is if you stop worrying about the tone, and you look at the accomplishments, there is no question that this president has accomplished more in his first years than any Republican administration we have seen in a long time.