The Morning Report
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The election could’ve decided their fates. The Communist candidate condemned capitalism, blamed the West for the Soviet Union’s downfall, and said the Soviet states would reunite voluntarily. He led the early polls.
Talk of cancelling the election swirled, and the oligarchs had been specifically called on to pony up cash for Yeltsin’s campaign. An idea surfaced on how to spend that money: American political consultants.
At the same time, Gorton and consulting partner Joe Shumate milled about their offices, in the wake of Wilson’s failed bid. The campaign had collapsed before it really started — a throat condition made it difficult for the candidate to speak early on and raising money was tough.
The office phone rang and Shumate picked up. A Russian-American businessman who lived in the United States had new work for the trio of Gorton, Shumate and pollster Dick Dresner on another presidential campaign — Boris Yeltsin’s.
No one really took it seriously.
That is, until their suitors kept the Russian consulate open after hours so that Dresner could get his visa. Dresner flew to Moscow and put together a proposal for $250,000 plus expenses. It was a secret engagement; the consultants would tell people they were in Russia selling thin-screen televisions.
Gorton digested the details in Bali and sent Dresner a simple fax: “I want in.”
They flew to Moscow, and as they settled in, the consultants quickly came to the conclusion that the campaign was being run all wrong. Pictures of a stoic, unsmiling Yeltsin adorned campaign posters. He was presented as czar-like. Hands weren’t being shaken. Babies weren’t being kissed. There were no photo-ops.
But the Americans were brought in by just one of many groups competing for Yeltsin’s ear. No one who had a direct line into the president seemed to care or even know they were there. For the first weeks, they stayed in the hotel and did little. They weren’t allowed to leave the hotel without chaperones. They contemplated leaving. When they were allowed to offer advice, no one listened.
They’d never even met the man they were working to get elected. No one got to meet him. Everything went through his daughter, Tatyana Yeltsin Dyachenko.
In an effort to help prepare the president for a major address, the American consultants offered Dyachenko a vision: a short, quick address with a handful of talking points in a room filled with a young, diverse group. It would be a lively departure from Yeltsin’s standard long, droning speeches, presented to a room of old, bored government insiders.
As soon as the consultants began watching the address, they knew they’d been ignored again. It was standard Yeltsin. Long, and delivered to a stodgy, lifeless crowd.
Gorton felt he had to do something to get his message across. He reached for one of the political consultant’s greatest tools: The perception analyzer. The consultants put together a test group, handed dials to the residents and played a tape of Yeltsin’s speech. When the residents’ opinions were good, they cranked the dial one way. When they were bad, they cranked the dial the other way. A screen displayed the results.
Gorton sat Dyachenko down and had her watch the voters’ reactions to her father’s speech. When the camera flashed to the frozen crowd, the analyzer shot down. When Yeltsin droned on and on, it did the same.
The speech bombed. Shumate had never seen anything like it.
It was a major breakthrough; the consultants now had the conduit they needed into Yeltsin and a plan. They flew to the Russian boondocks and conducted focus groups in barns. Outside of the bubble of Moscow, they learned that Yeltsin’s messages weren’t resonating.
He boasted that he’d cut inflation by 50 percent, given land back to farmers and given back pay to workers of state-owned factories. But voters either didn’t get it or didn’t care. Voters believed the government existed just to make people in Moscow money. And Yeltsin had a reputation for showing up drunk to public events.
The consultants found that voters were very resistant to change. No matter how bad things were, they feared they could get worse. They preferred very slow change to the risk of sudden change.
And they were afraid of civil unrest if they elected a new government.
“My guy was drunk, corrupt. It was bad vs. evil,” Gorton says.
And, Shumate says, Gorton was the first person to understand how the voters were thinking.
The campaign turned around. The Americans felt their ideas were working. Yeltsin went out among the people. He smiled. His campaign stoked fears of a civil war. His numbers shot up. Even with the consultants’ secrecy, hints of their presence could be found. “Yeltsin is running a slick Western-style campaign the likes of which Russia has never seen,” CNN declared at the time.
Then, the candidate got confident. He publicly predicted victory in the primary, saying he’d get the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff. He danced at youth rock ‘n’ roll rallies. That was a problem with older voters.
Those close to Yeltsin started to get nervous, according to Gorton. The polling was notoriously unreliable in Russia at the time because so many Russians didn’t have phones. The sponsor told Gorton to get Yeltsin to call off the election.
Lots of money, and maybe even lives, Gorton thought, were at stake as Russia attempted to get its footing in democracy.
He authored a memo, delivered to Dyachenko, essentially defying the wishes of the oligarchs and explaining why the election was winnable and how it would be done. It was the first time he’s ever guaranteed victory.
That’s when Gorton says he began fearing for his life, afraid those who wanted the election cancelled would come after him. He says the liaison between the consultants and the sponsor told him that the consultants would all be killed — as would Dyachenko — because of the memo.