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The Ad Game: How To Sway 7% Of The Voters Through Razzmatazz. : Tactics: Tragedy works, so do attacks on Friday.

October 28, 1990|Linda Breakstone | Linda Breakstone covers politics for KABC-TV .

Sorry, folks, the Feinstein-Wilson gubernatorial made-for-television campaign probably was not meant for you. The scripted words and images, the issues and positions the candidates take on them, the charges and countercharges, the smiles and frowns-- all were created by political consultants for a mere 7% of California's eligible voters. It's the consultants' dirty little secret.

The consultants know that 80% of the voters who will go to the polls made up their mind before the campaign even got under way. They'll vote Democratic or Republican no matter what Dianne Feinstein or Pete Wilson say or do. That leaves roughly 1.5 million voters open to political persuasion--or 7% of the state's eligible 19 million.

They are Democrats who voted for Ronald Reagan; Republicans who care about the environment and continued government funding of abortions. They want a conservative hand on the judicial helm; a business approach to state budgeting. They will be compassionate toward the poor--if the budget can afford it. They wouldn't mind a little political excitement if the candidate can be trusted.

The Feinstein-Wilson campaigns will spend, collectively, an unprecedented $20 million on television ads in attempts to sway these voters. That comes out to roughly $13 a vote. When you factor in other campaign costs--like the salaries of those who make the TV ads--it's about $30 a vote. (Next time, Mr. or Ms. Candidate, write me a check.)

From the beginning, Feinstein's media strategists sought to overcome the stereotype that women can handle legislative work, but not executive jobs like governor. At the same time, they wanted to underline her gender and spotlight her bold, natural style.

Wilson was burdened with the widespread perception that he was just another boring, white male in pursuit of a more powerful political job. To overcome it, his handlers devised commercials depicting the senator as a "tough, but caring" politician who knew his away around government and had his priorities straight.

The greater problem facing the two candidates' strategists was how to undermine the opponent--the sine qua non of political advertising. Indeed, a lot of political mush and half-truths have been aired in this year's television ad campaign because neither Wilson nor Feinstein could come up with a "silver bullet." In the Democratic primary campaign, Feinstein possessed such a magic bullet--her opponent's refusal, as Los Angeles County district attorney, to prosecute Angelo Buono for murder in the Hillside Strangler case on the ground that he lacked sufficient evidence. The attorney general's office, of course, eventually stepped in and got the conviction with largely the same evidence. This fundamental flaw in John K. Van de Kamp's political profile was so horrific, judged Feinstein's media managers, that a TV ad reminding voters of it would surely sway the undecided to her.

Ahead in the polls, Feinstein kept the "Strangler" ad on the shelf until the last days of the primary campaign, when a fading Van de Kamp had to go on the attack. The Feinstein campaign bought $500,000 of air time from Thursday to the last Sunday before the voting. The average TV viewer probably saw the 30-second spot at least four times.

Such flaws as Van de Kamp's prosecutorial ineptness are usually old pieces of information long forgotten by the public--until brought to life in the editing bay. If a campaign manager finds a silver bullet and has enough money to sustain fire, the prospects for victory increase exponentially.

Which is precisely why a well-financed candidate like Wilson has spent a lot of campaign energy and treasury this year on--if you will--silver-bullet research. His chief media consultant, Larry McCarthy, was the creator of the first Willie Horton ad that so effectively wounded Michael S. Dukakis in the '88 presidential campaign.

Meantime, there was air time to fill, and Wilson's image-makers had to overcome the senator's nondescript personality. The solution: Tell the 7% of voters in play what he'd done and what he intended to do for them--his "vision." Wilson's "vision" spot--including images of him walking the beach to draw attention to his opposition to offshore oil drilling--stressed the idea that fiscal frugality and accomplishment are not incompatible. While mayor of San Diego, the ad proclaims, Wilson balanced the budget and built the San Diego trolley. Thus, Wilson-the-businesslike-moderate was born.

As for Feinstein, an early campaign memo had advised the former San Francisco mayor that the solution to the "perception within the voting community that women are somehow less able to lead and administer" was to "recall the state of turmoil and emotional upheaval that the assassinations (of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk) caused in (San Francisco) government." Thus was born the most memorable ad--to date--of the '90 governor's race: Feinstein's "forged in tragedy" ad.

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