Today I shared a few thoughts about the GOP Convention and Trumps speech at Real Clear Politics.
Political advertising is often referred to as a “dark art”, some kind of nefarious voodoo performed by hacks who live under the stairs and come out every two years to scare us in our living rooms. And many of those ads fairly perpetuate that impression.
Like any other profession there are those who slog away churning out pablum. Then, there are people who are skilled craftsmen and women. Democratic ad maker Julian Mulvey has given us all a lesson in what great political advertising looks like. I was able to get a few brief comments from Mulvey (he’s quite busy…) and, together with my own thoughts, here is why the film is so special.
It captures the essence of the candidate. So many political ads invest themselves in trying to persuade us which issues are important, or what to think about another candidate or party. Instead, the best ads answer the question we really want to know. What is this person about?
Magnificently, without a single work of dialogue, this reveals the essence of Bernie Sanders and the thing that makes him different from everyone else in the field – Passion. Whether you agree with Sanders’ policy positions or not, no one believes he’s not passionate about his views. That’s the spirit of this entire piece of communication – if you passionately believe in the promise of America this is your campaign, come on board.
Misdirection. Typically, in the last two weeks of a race, we wince when we turn on the TV, awash in thirty second nastygrams. Instead, this is a positive ad “right at the moment when candidates typically go negative” Mulvey says. One YouTube commenter even wrote “wait, aren’t you supposed to be attacking somebody?”
Things you don’t expect are more interesting and engaging than the same old same old. This is a refreshing, encouraging and uplifting ad that will stand out from a sea of screens cloaked in dark tones, ominous voices and red underlining of tough words.
Less is more. I once had a professor who demanded our class write a difficult exam answer on one blue book sheet of paper. It was great training for being a communications professional. In a cluttered and distracted world, “fewer” is simpler, stronger and clearer. You have to be understood to be truly heard. You don’t need one more word to get your point across. You need a better word or, sometimes, no words at all.
Masterful pacing. Mulvey said one of his objectives was to create “infectious enthusiasm.” He nailed it, as you can feel the excitement build through the spot. The film and music all work together to connect powerful crescendos. If you are a Sanders supporter, you are ready to go knock on doors in zero degree Iowa weather from now until caucus night. That’s a win.
Emotion beats reason. So many political spots work overtime trying to make an argument. Here, there is no argument to process, no intellectual gymnastics to perform. You simply need to sit back and experience the moment. You want to watch this ad over and over again not to comprehend the case it makes, but so you can smile just one more time.
The power of music. The music track can often be the single most important choice in an ad. It’s sets the mood and tone of the entire conversation. Here, a familiar song known by many is the most powerful part of the ad. Why is this important?
Many people today are disillusioned and angry. They learned from their parents, grandparents, teachers and leaders what America is supposed to be. They still believe in that America, and they want to make it work. They may be frustrated by the failure of political leadership but they are not going to quit on America. They’re still “looking” for the America they idealize, the one to which we all aspire. The ad acknowledges that yearning and rather than lecture us about it or tell us what that version of America ought to look like, it simply it holds up a mirror to it and reflects its radiant beauty. As Mulvey told me, “it lets the viewer write the script, right from their own life story.” Brilliant.
Production value matters. How many times has a powerful concept or a great idea been killed by a low rent production budget. So many people in media have been trained to worship at the altar of reach, frequency and the almighty gross rating point. But watching tripe ten times instead of eight isn’t going to change anyone’s mind or make them feel anything different. You can put a sorry product on every computer or TV screen in America and it will still be sorry.
Great communication is about the power of the expression, the beauty of the idea – not how many times you can bludgeon someone over the head with it. Invest in the idea. Buy the famous song rights. Steal some money from the media budget and have the courage to create something powerful, inspirational and moving. If you are talking about the search for the American ideal, then have the courage to capture it in its perfect glory, with beautiful films like this that showcase the depth and breath of the subject and the passion with which people believe in it.
So hats off from this Republican to Mulvey and the Sanders’ campaign for a great ad. Will it work? We’ll see. The Clinton machine continues to trudge along like a snowplow, and it may push Sanders to the side. But with work like this in the field, Sanders will continue to have a chance to pull the biggest upset since… well, since the last time the Clinton snowplow ended up in an Iowa ditch.
The 1990 military thriller The Hunt for Red October was a terrific movie adapted from a great novel by the late Tom Clancy. The penultimate scene occurs when the captain of a Russian attack submarine, Viktor Tupelov, becomes frustrated after his adversary Marko Ramius, a defecting Russian commander played by Sean Connery, brilliantly outmaneuvers Tupelov’s torpedo attack. As his crew protests in doubt, Tupelov throws caution to the sea, removes the safety features from his second torpedo and fires it at Ramius and the Red October.
Inevitably, Ramius and Red October are able to evade torpedo impact and, as the weapon slices free into open water, it acquires a new target – the submarine of Tupelov, the man who fired it. As it becomes evident the torpedo will miss Ramius and destroy Tupelov’s boat, his second in command angrily shouts, “You arrogant ass, you’ve killed us!”
Last night, Marco Rubio became Marko Rubio Ramius, the political equivalent of the brilliant fictional naval tactician. By dodging the torpedo fired by Jeb Bush and redirecting it to slam into Bush’s hull, he may have sunk the Bush campaign.
In debates, the most memorable moments often come as a result of the counterpunch, when an opponent’s or moderator’s words are turned against them. Lloyd Bentsen’s “You’re no Jack Kennedy” line and Ronald Reagan’s “I won’t exploit… my opponent’s youth and inexperience” come to mind.
But even those moments don’t quite reflect the unmitigated disaster that befell Jeb Bush, because they did not represent the collapse of an entire campaign strategy.
At this stage of a campaign, politics is a zero sum game. To grow your market share, you don’t create new buyers, you have to take market share (votes) from other candidates. Bush, lagging in “market share”, was faced with a choice. Take votes from the outsiders, Trump and Carson, or attempt to consolidate votes from those that might be seen as insiders.
Bush chose the latter strategy, and Rubio’s voting record in the Senate was his chosen tactical path. But as another character in The Hunt for Red October climactically said, “the hard part about playing chicken is knowing when to flinch.”
Watch as Rubio coolly stares Bush down, knowing he is about to blow his political boat out of the water:
Last night Jeb Bush lost an incredibly high stakes game of political chicken. The result of that loss is not just a bad debate moment. Today, his campaign’s strategy for growth lies in pieces on the ocean floor next to the scrap metal of Captain Tupelov’s boat, and it is difficult to see Bush’s way back to the surface.
As we all breathlessly proclaim the Year of the Political Outsider – and hey, I’ve rambled about it myself – sometimes it’s good to take a look back and see if what we think is unique is really just usual.
30 years ago the #1 movie in America was Back to the Future. That’s as good a reason as we need to hop in the Delorean, fire up the flux capacitor, set the red numbers to January 24, 2000, and head to Des Moines.
If my calculations are correct, at 88 mph we’ll see that the “Year of the Outsider” – at least in Iowa – is just this year’s New Old Thing.
When we get to snowy Iowa 16 years ago we find that three political “outsiders,” none of whom had held political office before, took 53% of the vote in the 2000 Iowa Caucuses – billionaire publisher Steve Forbes, conservative political activist Alan Keyes and former Family Research Council president Gary Bauer.
Sound familiar? That’s because 52% of the vote – almost the exact same number – belongs today to Billionaire real estate magnate Donald Trump, Retired Neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.
Now set those red numbers to January 3, 2008 and hit the pedal again. We’ll arrive in time to find anti-establishment Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee winning Iowa with 34%, and anti-establishment libertarian Congressman Ron Paul picking up another 10%. That’s 44% going to the anti-establishment.
Zoom to January 3, 2012, and get there in time to see the anti-establishment “outsider” trio of former Senator Rick Santorum, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and Congressman Paul take 51% of the vote.
Let’s take a look:
- What’s past in politics is often prelude. Typically, somewhere between 45-55% of the Iowa GOP caucus vote is going to outsider, non/anti-establishment candidates in any given year since Bill Clinton has been president. This year’s “phenomenon” is more regular than rare.
- It depends on the meaning of the word “outsider”. The real division is not so much outsider vs. insider, but its establishment vs. anti-establishment. Former pols like Huckabee, Santorum or even current pols like Ron Paul who are seen as anti-Washington and against the status quo run well in Iowa and accumulate caucus vote like winter snowfall.
- Iowa is a broken weathervane. In the era of the Reagan Revolution and beyond, only two candidates have won a contested GOP caucus in Iowa and gone on to be the nominee. And one of the winners who did, Bob Dole in 1996, was from nearby Kansas. Four times the Iowa winner eventually lost. If you want to know the prevailing GOP winds, look instead to New Hampshire and South Carolina. They’ve historically been much stronger indicators of who the nominee will be.
- Do Hawkeyes love Billionaire magnates? Billionaire Publishing magnate single issue candidate (Flat Tax) Steve Forbes pulled roughly the same percentage of Iowa vote that Billionaire Real Estate magnate single issue candidate (Immigration) Donald Trump is pulling today 31/29. Forbes’ campaign failed to grow, and the primary argument against Trump today is that his campaign has reached its ceiling too.
If you’re a card carrying member of the GOP establishment, these polls might have you as worried about the rhythmic ceremonial ritual of the Iowa Caucus as Marty McFly was terrified being in the car with Lorraine at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance. Somebody, anybody on your team can’t open that car door soon enough and change the direction of the polling.
But as our quick trip tells us, relax. Worry not.
Someone will show up. Maybe not in Iowa, but they’ll get there.
Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Calvin Klein… someone will get a visit from Darth Vader of the Planet Vulcan, find courage and tell Donald “Biff” Trump to get his damn hands off the voters. And then the race will be on, bolt of lightning and 1.21 Gigawatts strong.
And we know they will come. We can guarantee it.
After all, we’ve seen this movie before, haven’t we?
This past week, I had the pleasure of spending time on the phone with one of the best political reporters in America, Salena Zito. I don’t know anyone who is more connected to, or giving better voice to the struggles and fears of working class voters. We talked about what is really going on with Hillary, Bernie and Joe, and from that conversation she wrote a terrific story that you should read here. Or here at Real Clear Politics.
The substance of our conversation was how many Democrats are becoming terrified that this is “second verse same as the first” for Hillary.
It’s becoming clear that the problem with Hillary is not Obama, it’s not Mark Penn, its’ not Patti Solis Doyle, and it’s not Bernie Sanders.
It’s Hillary. She’s the New York Jets of American politics.
All the damage comes from inside her own locker room. The blows aren’t struck from outside, but from her own non-campaign. Her own server. Her own emails. Her own foundation. Her own remarks like “dead broke.”
The toughest opponent Hillary Clinton is facing is Hillary Clinton. And she’s losing to her.
I feel her pain.
As Hillary shrinks (and as the latest polls show that shrinkage is real), the law of politics abhorring a vacuum takes its inevitable hold. Angry Republicans desperate for leadership didn’t hear a voice in tune with them early? Hello Donald Trump.
Now, working class Democrats see in Hillary an out of touch elitist who can’t shoot straight because she’s tripping over her own rules that she made up as she’s gone along. And while Bernie Sanders makes millennials and celebrities swoon, most folks just see a goofy socialist. Like those same Republicans with Trump, Democrats who don’t live on Park Avenue want to hear an echo of their struggle, their pain, their concern about the future.
And the same Joe Biden we were reintroduced to during the tragic, agonizing passing of his son Beau. The Joe Biden who above all politics has always first been a thoroughly likeable, relatable and decent human being.
Hello Joe Biden. Please pick up the white courtesy phone. An important call is waiting.