Here we are, living in the United States, apparently one of the most powerful and free nations on earth, about to pick the person who is going to lead the Executive Branch of the national government in a time of uncertainty and crisis. You’d think such times would merit a serious, and careful campaign by all sides, as people are asked to make a decision that will have significant impact both now, and in the future.
And here’s the debate so far, and what we can look forward to, if history, and the personalities involved, are any indication of what we can expect to hear every morning on the news:
PING!: President Bush said today that Sen. John Kerry was a flake, a Communist, and wants to reduce the military to a kazoo band and a pack of Cub Scouts with slingshots.
PONG!: Sen. John Kerry, responded to the latest attack ad campaign by calling Bush the worst president since Hoover, and labeled his poor grammar “appalling in time of world crisis.”
PING!: A nasty surrogate of President Bush, in a meth-induced right wing frenzy, likened Kerry to Stalin and Lenin, insinuated he was a traitor, and said that anyone not voting for the President was a non-American hippie freak. The Bush campaign distanced themselves from the comments, as they came from an unaffiliated organization.
PONG!: A nasty surrogate of Sen. Kerry , in a similar frenzy, likened Bush to Hitler and Satan’s Spawn, insinuated he was a traitor, and said that anyone voting for the President was a non-American nazi freak. The Kerry campaign distanced themselves from the comments, as they came from an unaffiliated organization.
Ok, perhaps I’ve exaggerated. A little.
However, this is what we can expect, and what we’re getting already, now that the we’ve got our nominee on the Democratic side, and the vitriol can begin. Already President Bush is putting out some of the most misleading ads and attacks, backed up by the money he’s got. Sen. Kerry is responding, as he promised (“Bring it on!” – remember that?) but doesn’t have the money to mount a full response, so he has to spend time on the trail speaking up. Every day some little droid writes up the day’s talking points/vitriolic rhetoric, with the nastier ones saved for surrogates, and someone has a response.
Now, I’m not one of those people who whines “negative campaigning” for the sake of saying “ooh it’s too mean, boo hoo” and then goes home to watch The Apprentice, Survivor, Big Brother, or any one of a number of nastier things on TV or the movies.
There’s nothing negative about bringing up an opponent’s past and asking for a closer examination. For example if someone says he or she is a strong conservative family values candidate, but in their own life gambles excessively and cheats on their spouse, it’s not slander to point this fact out. Armed with this knowledge, people can decide if it’s relevant or not. It isn’t pleasant to talk about, and disclosing such information isn’t meant to be happy, but facts in context are relevant and should be discussed. There are dozens of other scenarios, this is but one.
Unfortunately, the kind of name calling , nasty insinuations, the “might be” slur, and the the “you’re unpatriotic if you don’t vote our way” crap I can’t stand are the standard so far, and it is going to get old very fast.
The news media is going to get bored and whip out a custom copy of Mad Libs to write their stories. We won’t really get an accounting from either candidate on their past, good and bad, that would tell us whether they should be in the White House. We deserve better and it’s high time for Americans of all political stripes to demand better from their party’s standard bearer.
Also if Sen. Kerry hopes to win this election, he can’t allow himself to play a standard point-counterpoint, hit-for-hit campaign, and allow the landscape to be defined by a bunch of bogus soundbites concocted by Karl Rove. He will never have the money to match Bush and Rove dollar for dollar to buy the ads needed, and the soundbite “noise” will get in the way of talking to voters about what he’ll do if he is elected in 2004.
Now I’m not suggesting that Kerry and his campaign aren’t good at what they do – they are great! – but what I am suggesting is that they’re going to have to think out of the box to get around the wall of bullshit and money the Bush team is going to have at their disposal (not to mention he is an incumbent with all the power that entails!)
I’ll admit – I’ve never run a presidential campaign before and I’m sure that if Robert Shrum were to read this he’d call me up and tell me just how full of crap I am. Indeed. After all how many presidents did I elect all by myself? Zero. But I also know that when you’re up against the overwhelming odds of a poweful incumbent who has more money in his change purse than you do in your bank account, you will lose if you play their game.
That’s why you need to pick up your money and go to another table and pick a game you have a chance instead. If I’m losing at roulette, I leave with my pocket change and go play craps instead where I have half a chance (although some would argue that the way I play craps I have NO chance but that’s another story…)
Kerry needs to leave the table with his money and play another game. Pole vault over Bush’s pompous and hollow rhetoric with something that gets people excited, that makes them laugh, but also make them think. Take people by surprise and make them want to stand out in the rain on election day getting those extra voters out. People with considerably less than Kerry, both politically and personally, have pulled off such wins and he can do it too.
Here’s a few past campaigns to take a look at and consider. Now as always, keep in mind that copying past advertising word-for-word never works – we’ve seen that done to death in both politics and in commercial advertising. What does work is the observation of how others thought outside conventional boundaries, and then consider how one might do so themselves successfully. Enjoy the history lesson!
A trip via the Wayback Machine finds us with some case studies. You can find out more at your local library, or online at Google.com
1990: Paul Wellstone vs. Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, MN: In 1990, a relatively unknown college professor, Paul Wellstone, got the nod to run against incumbent Rudy Boschwitz, who had enormous financial and political resources at his disposal. Given no chance to win by the Democratic Establishment in Washington, and little hope by even his own supporters (at first), Wellstone, it seemed was doomed to be a footnote to history.
Wellstone’s team realized this quickly and rather than wallow in self-pity or throw up a few scattershot humdrum ads, they instead played off a pop culture phenomena of the time to launch a very memorable ad campaign. A new film, Roger and Me had been released to wide acclaim, and a humorous 2 minute ad starring Wellstone in “Looking for Rudy”, mimicking Moore’s film, was made.
The ad only ran a few times – but the humor combined with constant replays on national television news programs, began an effective redefinition of the race. Without a lot of money what little message out there had to be memorable – and it worked. Combined with Wellstone’s humor and campaign organization, he ended up being the only Democratic challenger to win a US Senate seat that year. Wellstone’s media consultant would go on to make the ads that helped Gov. Jesse Ventura win election in 1998.
1992: Russ Feingold vs. Sen. Bob Kasten, WI: Two years later, a similar race evolved between a little-known state legislator, Russ Feingold and incumbent Bob Kasten, another powerful incumbent with a ton of money. Again, up against such odds, Feingold ran an ad campaign played up his commitment to the voters of Wisconsin (painted on his garage door, no less) and dismissed the usual negative blather with an entertaining ad putting such nonsense in the context of Elvis sightings in the National Enquirer.
These and other informative and unusual ads communicated his platform of economic and political reform far better than if he ran conventional tit-for-tat advertising responding to each nasty missive from the incumbent. He continues to serve in the US Senate today.
1994: Ron Sims vs. Sen. Slade Gorton, WA: Ron Sims, an energetic and thoughtful Seattle politician, challenged longtime Washington politician Slade Gorton in what would be an uphill battle similar to Wellstone and Feingold’s races in previous years. Sims was a dynamic speaker with a powerful life story, coupled with a knowledge of public policy rarely matched in state politics. Sims’ challenge was bold, and had the potential to be another upset win.
Unfortunately, his campaign fell short, primarily because he was hit relentlessly with advertising attacking his record, much of it distorted and untrue. Outspent by the incumbent, Sims did not have the resources to run the ads needed to counter the charges.
His advisors elected to engage in a traditional “ping-pong” style combination of attacks, responses and scattered positive pieces. Without the money needed to fund such a campaign effectively, much of Sims’ message was lost amidst the crush of Republican advertising that returned control of Congress to the GOP for the first time in 50 years.
To be fair, Sims was the only challenger to do reasonably well in a year when many well-funded people lost (including House Speaker Tom Foley), and it may have been impossible for him to win no matter what he did And, it is not as if his advisors were incompetent – they were and continue to be, some of the best in the business. However, their bid was a longshot to begin with, and they had nothing to lose by trying something a little more “out there.”
It’s not unlike fighting the British in the Revolution. Do you march around in red coats in a straight (and much shorter) line like the British do, or do you wear darker clothing and hide behind trees and outwit your opponent?
Sims went on to win two terms as King County Executive, the second most powerful position in Washington politics. He is now running for Governor this year.
© 2003-2006 Greg Dewar | All Rights Reserved | Originally Published at www.schadelmann.com
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