By Ben Goddard - 11/18/04 12:00 AM EST
There was a program crisis. The key advertising people from the Bush and Kerry campaigns were burned out; not up for a cross-continental trip to rehash the presidential campaign air war, even for an audience of more than 100 political consultants from around the world.The call came Thursday morning as I was packing for a flight to Vancouver, British Columbia, for the 37th annual conference of the International Association of Political Consultants.
There was a program crisis. The key advertising people from the Bush and Kerry campaigns were burned out; not up for a cross-continental trip to rehash the presidential campaign air war, even for an audience of more than 100 political consultants from around the world.
Would I be willing to critique the campaigns with Sal Russo, a respected California Republican consultant? Of course I would. But neither Sal nor I had worked on either campaign, and we’d both spent the election season in non-battleground states.
Fortunately, there is a website called livingroomcandidate.com that has virtually all the ads of the 2004 campaign, including those run by the dozen or so 527s. After watching the entire 2004 advertising campaign in just over an hour, I understood why George W. Bush is still president of the United States. If you define the terms, you win the debate.
Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry tried, and failed, to make this campaign about issues. President Bush succeeded in making it about fear and values. Not abortion or gay marriage but old-fashioned fear-driven values.
Polling throughout the campaign showed voters’ concern about the economy and the war in Iraq. They worried about jobs and healthcare and retirement security and the environment. On most of these issues, they thought Kerry could do a better job.
Bush’s only advantage seemed to be his resolute stand against terrorism. Voters’ domestic concerns kept giving Democrats hope right up to and through the misleading exit polls on Election Day.
There is evidence the Kerry campaign understood that values were driving votes. The problem is, they didn’t understand what “values” meant to most Americans. Values are more than religious beliefs. Values go to the heart of what it means to be an American.
One of the brightest political media minds of the 20th century, Tony Schwartz, wrote a book called The Responsive Chord, which was published about 40 years ago. His thesis was that the most important element of electronic media is not what they say but the response they create. The power of a message is in how it resonates with the audience. What’s important is not what the sender says but what the receiver hears.
The Bush campaign understood that far better than the Kerry campaign. (The irony here is that Tony Schwartz used his principles to elect Democrats — his most famous creation being the devastating “Daisy” ad that ran only once but defined Barry Goldwater for a lifetime.)
Bush’s messages on Iraq, for example, made a simple connection that was exactly the opposite of what Kerry and dozens of foreign-policy experts say. The logical left brain reasons that the war in Iraq has created hundreds of thousands of new terrorists. But the emotional right brain got the message that we either fight the terrorists in Iraq or we fight them in Indianapolis.
Bush never specifically said that in a single commercial, but it was the takeaway from dozens of spots. It’s not logical, but it connects on an emotional level. It makes Bush’s “drawing a line in the sand” an American value reinforced by Friday-night football, Sunday-morning sermons and generations of Hollywood movies.
When Kerry’s campaign tried to talk about values, it was really talking issues. Social Security, healthcare, minimum wage, tax breaks for the wealthy — those are all issues. Keeping your word, standing firm and protecting families and faith are values. I don’t think there was a single Bush commercial that didn’t somehow touch on family, faith, marriage, fear and strength.
Even the attack ads were value-based. Kerry windsurfing was not simply about blowing with the wind, it was about an eastern elitist sport that visually demonstrated the Democratic nominee didn’t share the values of swing state voters.
Democrats now wringing their hands over how to appeal to Baptists are missing a critical point. The issue is not who goes to church on Sunday. Democrats must retake ownership of stable families, living wages, retirement security, keeping faith with middle America and safety at home. All explained on an emotional level that quiets America’s fears.
This White House was won in America’s heart, and if Democrats insist on waging campaigns in the head it may be a long time before they again occupy the Oval Office.
Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants GC Strategic Advocacy. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org