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Political Advertising|By Elizabeth Wilner, February 26, 2013

The old Gramm-Rudman trick of scaring the two parties into compromising on fiscal policy by making the alternative politically unbearable for both has failed. Here come Democratic strategists talking up using sequestration’s $1.2 trillion in cuts against Republicans in defense-dependent districts in 2014. They may want to look into how well that worked for Republicans in 2012.

In some of the biggest races in the country, Republicans tried to jangle voters’ nerves by advertising the Democratic candidates’ “support” for looming defense cuts—not just as a sign of weakness on national security but as a jobs issue. The ads targeted defense-dependent media markets and put numbers on layoffs. Some ads singled out high-employing defense contractors and military bases as potential victims of cuts.

That Republicans lost every race was due to many factors beyond just a failed sequester scare, but the trend is cautionary for ad-makers of both sides and, really, for anyone wanting to sway public opinion on our thorny fiscal problems. There’s a lot about these problems for Americans to fear, but scaring them into action is getting harder to do.

Gov. Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign launched a fall battery of TV ads in Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia warning of the impact of defense cuts on area employment. A Romney radio ad in Washington, DC accused President Obama of “trying to drastically cut military funding… The result: weakened national security and over 130,000 fewer jobs in Virginia.”

Contractor mecca Virginia was ground zero for the effort: Republicans also hit Democratic Senate nominee Tim Kaine for supporting defense cuts that would “devastate America’s defense and Virginia jobs… Over 200,000 Virginia jobs on the chopping block,” per one Crossroads GPS spot. A GOP Senate committee ad specifically warned of job losses at Northrup Grumman and BAE.

As the chart below by my colleague Harley Ellenberger shows, defense/aerospace was the fourth-most mentioned topic in Republican TV ads in the Virginia Senate race after jobs, government spending and taxes. With 9,309 mentions, it was used far more often than healthcare (5,787) even though “Obamacare,” after the economy bucket, was easily the second most popular subject of Republican advertising nationwide.

In Connecticut, GOP Senate nominee Linda McMahon’s ads warned that because Democratic opponent Chris Murphy didn’t do his job in Congress, “automatic budget cuts now threaten 35,000 defense jobs” at home-state employers Electric Boat, Sikorsky and Pratt & Whitney. Similar Republican spots aired against Democrats in Hawaii, Montana and New Mexico.

In Illinois’ 12th district, Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s YG Network hit Democrat Bill Enyart, a former state National Guard adjutant general, with an ad charging, “Bill Enyart will... stand with Obama whose defense cuts will destroy jobs at Scott Airbase.” Enyart also won in November.

Timing matters in all things and particularly in politics. Republicans had the prospect of potential defense job cuts in 2012. By 2014, Democrats may have actual job losses to point to, though the impact of the sequester is expected to take years to sink in.

But jobs were such an overwhelming concern for voters already in 2012 that by far, they were the prevailing issue across all campaign advertising. In the presidential race, the mere fact of the US unemployment rate was supposed to boost Romney halfway to victory. And these Senate candidates weren’t Tea Partiers—they were the party’s more moderate front line in its widely anticipated takeover of the chamber. So why didn’t the sequester scare work?

Some analysts have written insightfully about polling suggesting that defense is no longer a go-to GOP issue. Its track record in 2012 advertising certainly backs that up.

But there’s another explanation with real import: America’s increasingly of-the-moment culture and viewers’ cynicism about politics are raising the bar for an effective scare.

At the sausage-making level, this means the process of creating an ad that jolts people is getting more laborious. Studio-produced ads with canned elements no longer cut it. “What we saw from all the ads was, it’s always more powerful when you’ve got third-party validators, when you’ve got individuals who have lived the issue,” said a Democratic ad-maker who worked in several of the defense-dependent states.

And that’s just the start. After finding and vetting a validator, he or she must be willing to not just tell the story on camera but to sign a release, which tends to hammer home the potential for scrutiny by the news media or the opposing campaign. Then, the ad may require defending—the targeted candidate may challenge the ad at television stations, demanding that the advertiser produce documentation to back up the claims.

Consider a pair of 2012 ads by pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action created to scare voters about Romney. In one, a former steelworker blamed his wife’s cancer death on Bain Capital’s takeover of his plant. The ad caused a fact-checking firestorm and barely aired. But the other ad showing another former worker talking about how he was told to build the stage from which Bain executives announced his plant’s closure was rated the most effective ad of the race by ad-testing service Ace Metrix.

A decade ago, “you weren’t held to as high a standard by a viewer who is now more cynical about ads, by a news media who do fact-checking, by legal teams that have to get the ads on and off the air,” the Democratic ad-maker said.

But the potential repercussions extend far beyond the edit booth. You can’t decouple political communication tactics, advertising chief among them, from the process of informing American public opinion and creating the feedback loop that pressures lawmakers to act. “The better the facts, the better the story, the better the people, the better the ad,” said the Democratic ad-maker. “And that’s what’s worked against” Republicans on the sequester—“the facts, the story, the authenticity weren’t there.”

If having authentic victims tell compelling stories on camera becomes the bar for breaking through with Americans and moving them to demand fiscal policy fixes, then preventative policymaking truly is a thing of the past and every budgetary challenge will have to boil to a crisis before being addressed.

The semi-joking Washington CW may well be true—that once members of Congress become “victims” of the sequester by missing their flights home due to long lines at DC airports, they’ll be motivated to tackle the problem. But as traditional triggers for forcing policy fixes lose their effectiveness and require updating with Americans both inside the Beltway and out, put-out lawmakers are an inglorious and unsustainable solution.

Elizabeth Wilner, VP Kantar Media Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG), is Contributing Editor at the Cook Political Report