Thursday, November 27th, 2014

Campaign ads that mattered

Democratic Senate candidate Jack Conway released a polarizing ad on Oct. 15, 2010, that attacks his GOP Senate opponent, Rand Paul, on a number of religious issues.

The 2010 campaign ads had a lively cast of characters, from demon sheep to a man dubbed "Taliban Dan."  Some ads were fair, but many were not. The avalanche of them, particularly in the final days, turned our TVs into a blur of grainy black and white photos and ominous music.

We checked 253 claims from campaign ads as part of our Message Machine partnership with NPR. Many were cookie-cutter commercials that used the same lines in many states. But a few were truly unique and made a difference in the 2010 campaign. Here's a look at the ads that mattered:

-- "The Switch." In the primary for a Pennsylvania Senate seat, Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak may have won the race based on this ad alone. Sestak was challenging incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter, who had switched his party affiliation from Republican to Democratic the previous year. In a Democratic primary, Sestak used that bit of history to go for the jugular.

The ad began with footage of Specter at a post-party-switch press conference, saying, "My change in party will enable me to be reelected." To drive home the point, the ad included footage showing President George W. Bush calling Specter a "firm ally" and the tagline, "Arlen Specter switched parties to save one job: his own." But it was Specter's own words -- seemingly slowed down slightly when they were replayed -- that sealed Sestak's upset.

-- "Demon Sheep." This ad, one of the more bizarre ever made, used a phony sheep with creepy red eyes. It came from the campaign of Republican Carly Fiorina, the former head of Hewlett-Packard seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, to portray former state finance director Tom Campell as a big spender who contributed to California's budget mess. At its dramatic high point, it shows real sheep frolicking in a field while an obviously phony sheep with glowing red eyes prowls the perimeter, with somber music in the background.

The ad got lots of free media attention and helped Fiorina make her point that Campbell was a "fiscal conservative in name only." Fiorina won the nomination.

-- "Bringing the Axe to Washington." The sole positive ad on this list, this one helped seal Sean Duffy's victory in his bid to succeed retiring Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., who had occupied the seat for more than four decades. The ad used on-location footage of the flannel-clad Duffy -- one of a "long line of lumberjacks" -- chopping down a tree. The ad showed voters that Duffy wasn't simply a former cast member on MTV's The Real World, but rather someone in tune with concerns of residents of the rural district. And it used the wood-chopping as an effective metaphor for cutting the waste out of Washington.

His Democratic opponent, Julie Lassa, never caught up. Duffy won by 8 points.

-- "Saw How Bad." On the surface, this ad provided a forum for Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly of Indiana to talk tough against illegal immigration. But the most important part of it was how it set Donnelly apart from both Republican and Democratic leaders in Washington. The ad features a picture of President Barack Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Minority Leader (and soon-to-be-Speaker) John Boehner sitting together. As that image is shown, Donnelly, narrating for himself, calls the trio "the Washington crowd" and goes on to say, "I don't work for them, I work for you."

That was a different approach than the plethora of ads this year that demonized Obama and Pelosi, sometimes in cartoonish fashion. By criticizing Obama, Pelosi and Boehner -- both Republicans and Democrats -- for representing the status quo, Donnelly set himself apart as an independent voice. It was a canny move for a vulnerable Democrat in a swing district in Indiana, and he ended up with a narrow win.

-- "Echo." Like Sestak's, this ad by Jerry Brown's campaign in the California gubernatorial race used the candidate's own words as a devastating weapon. In fact, there's no narration -- just side-by-side footage of Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman and Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger using virtual identical lines. The ad gave Brown a powerful theme that resonated with voters: the notion that Whitman wasn't the bold outsider who could shake up government, but rather an imitation of an unpopular governor who presided over the current mess.

After this ad, Brown never lost his lead. He won by a seven-point margin.

-- "Dead Aim." West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, was in a tight race with Republican John Raese for an open Senate seat, so Manchin came out shooting.
 
He was personally popular but he had trouble countering the GOP argument that as a Senator, he would simply be another cog in the Democratic machine in Washington. So he decided to show his independence with a rifle.

Dressed in casual clothes in a West Virginia field, Manchin fires at the Democrats' cap-and-trade bill, which is tacked to a tree. A perfect hit -- on the paper target, and with voters. The ad helped turn the tide in the race, which Manchin eventually won by seven points despite a strong Republican wave.

But not every ad hit its target. A few backfired -- badly.

-- "I am not a witch." For a brief moment following her stunning primary upset in the Delaware Senate Republican primary, Christine O'Donnell might have persuaded skeptical voters she was qualified for the Senate. But instead, she chose to stand in front of a dark background and open with the line, "I am not a witch." Instead of redefining herself as a substantive candidate, she reminded voters of her strange remarks on the Bill Maher show. In one fell swoop, she not only reminded people about why she had gotten off to a bad start to begin with, and, more importantly, she squandered an opportunity to redefine herself in a substantive way that appealed to Democrats and moderate Republicans.

She ended up losing the race by 16 points.

-- "Taliban Dan." This ad was so embarrassing that the campaign of Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., took it off YouTube within days of its unveiling. The ad charged that Grayson's opponent, Republican Daniel Webster, wanted "to impose his radical fundamentalism on us," including an attempt to "deny battered women medical care and the right to divorce their abusers." It ended with the tagline, "Taliban Daniel Webster. Hands off our bodies. And our laws."

The ad made some incorrect claims and it singlehandedly jolted the Webster campaign to life after a slow start. Grayson lost by 18 points.

-- "Aqua Buddha."  This one torpedoed any chance that Democrat Jack Conway had of defeating Republican Rand Paul for an open Senate seat in Kentucky. The ad focused on an incident from Paul's college days that had caused Paul's campaign some embarrassment.

In the ad, a narrator intoned, "Why was Rand Paul a member of a secret society that caled the Holy Bible a hoax and was banned for mocking Christianity and Christ? Why did Rand Paul once tie a woman up and tell her to bow down before a false idol and say his God was 'Aqua Buddha'? ... Why are there so many questions about Rand Paul?"

Even liberals thought the ad was over the top. The New Republic's Jonathan Chait called it "the ugliest, most illiberal political ad of the year" for coming "perilously close to saying that non-belief in Christianity is a disqualification for public office," an idea that Chait called "a pretty sickening premise for a Democratic campaign." On liberal-leaning MSNBC, host Chris Matthews gave Conway a severe grilling over the ad.

A Democrat running for Senate from Kentucky is always going in for a difficult race, but Paul's libertarian views gave Conway an opening, and for a while, the contest was relatively close. But the ad backfired and Paul surged ahead and won by 12 points.