By Ben Goddard - 09/22/05 12:00 AM EDT
Just six weeks out from Election Day, the Virginia governor’s race has one overriding message for the ’06 midterms: You’ve got to have game to win an election in these times. Neither candidate in this race has it.
In a state where President Bush’s numbers are in the tank and Gov. Mark WarnerMark WarnerLawmaker bemoans tax 'buzzsaw' for on-demand economy workers Reid throws wrench into Clinton vice presidential picks Reid: 'Hell no' to VP pick from state with a Republican governor MORE’s (D) are solid and strong, there is no residual benefit to Lt. Gov. Tim KaineTim KaineDems discuss dropping Wasserman Schultz Reid throws wrench into Clinton vice presidential picks Republicans sue to stop felons from voting in Virginia MORE (D) or little apparent drag on Republican former Attorney General Jerry Kilgore. By every published poll, the two are in a statistical tie and have been for more than a month. The latest Mason-Dixon poll has them within a point.
They are each holding their bases, but independents, obviously the ones who will decide this race, have been … well … indifferent. Neither candidate is giving them a reason to be anything else.
Virginia voters are worried about gas prices, Iraq and Katrina. Neither candidate has come up with a message that breaks through our daily obsession or the news drumbeat on those issues. Both candidates, and the distant-running independent state Sen. Russell Potts, are talking about transportation, taxes and education. The issues are important to Virginia voters, but there is no significant difference in the candidates’ positions.
So an election like this comes down to personalities. (Sound familiar?) In this case, however, both major candidates present decidedly underwhelming images to voters. They are both spending a lot of money on television, and they are both doing it badly.
While Kaine is trying to tie himself to Gov. Warner, he simply lacks the charisma to be a believable full partner in that administration. In his early television ads, Kaine appears stiff and uncomfortable, an animatron candidate looking seriously at this piece of paper, pointing at that building or speaking stiffly to an ethnically balanced but frozen audience.
His handlers have tried just about every tired old technique to make him seem to be a caring, compassionate human being. They’ve put him in classrooms and then directed both him and the children to react to camera on cue and with no natural grace or flexibility. In a couple of his latest ads, he’s even surrounded by school kids who ask us to support him in a chorus of voices. Kids really do that, right? Only in Kaineworld.
And in an inept attempt at creating a “regular guy” image, Kaine has one spot with the entire family in the back yard packing for a camping trip. His son and daughter tell us what a great dad their father is and thus what a great governor he’ll be. That might work if the children were looking directly into the camera and speaking from the heart. But this clumsily staged backyard drama just doesn’t make the credibility cut.
The entire Kaine television campaign looks like something from 20 years ago and would have been badly done even then.
Not that the Kilgore team has done much better. He also seems stiff and placed in staged situations, including sitting on bleachers in a gym to announce he knows about education because he’s married to a teacher.
The Kilgore campaign launched with stock footage of crowded highways and a solemn pledge from the candidate to improve Interstate 66 “inside the Beltway.” I occasionally travel that route, so I’m sympathetic to the concept. But if I can get the same thing from your opponent, why should I vote for you? Just because you showed me my frustration?
From this simple stock-footage ad, the Kilgore campaign improved its production values with film and good camera work. But just as the messages were virtually identical to Kaine’s, so have been the concepts. The only improvement is that someone on the Kilgore team knows how to cut in graphic black-and-white images for emphasis.
And finally, in the most confusing strategic decision I’ve seen in a long time, both candidates have a cake ad. Two virtually identical cakes being sliced. One ends with the charge that “any way you slice it” the opponent is a bad guy, the other that his opponent “takes the cake.” Maybe the reason these guys are tied is that no one can tell them apart.
Television that strikes a responsive chord with viewers can win elections. It must touch the right brain with an emotional appeal and the left brain with a message the viewer cares about. What they’re spending millions on in Virginia does neither, so neither candidate has broken from the pack.
Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants GC Strategic Advocacy.