When President Gerald Ford's strategists feared that only a politically explosive gambit could salvage the 1976 presidential election, they crafted a television commercial that was--well, explosive --literally as well as figuratively. In fact, too explosive.
At the closing session of a three-day conference on presidential politics at UC San Diego, former Ford adviser Doug Bailey's recollection of the ad--so controversial that it never appeared in its original form--served as a case study on the knotty strategic elements that shape commercials in White House campaigns.
As Bailey recounted the story, Ford's aides felt in the final weeks of the 1976 race that, though he had closed to within striking distance of Democrat Jimmy Carter after once trailing by more than 30 percentage points in some polls, something dramatic had to happen for him to overtake Carter.
Consequently, Bailey began developing a five-minute TV ad, known within political circles as "the cherry bomb spot," intended to dramatize the campaign's major message that Ford had helped the nation "turn the corner" from the past decade's political turmoil--assassinations, Vietnam and Watergate.
To jar voters into confronting those distasteful memories, Bailey selected a risky, evocative image: footage from a Ford rally where a prankster's firecracker caused a visibly shaken Ford and the Secret Service to react as if the President, who had survived two earlier assassination attempts, now faced a third. The script accompanying the tape was just as shocking, saying at one point: "When the President can parade openly in a car in Dallas, there's a new spirit in the country."
Ultimately, Ford's other strategists rejected that part of the ad, fearing that it would cost him Texas--which he lost anyway--but also because Carter's lead had continued to shrink, causing them to be less willing to, in Bailey's words, "roll the dice."
More often, however, Bailey and his colleagues do "roll the dice" with the high-stakes 30-second TV commercials, an increasingly pivotal component in presidential races, and one that the consultants agreed has taken a sharply negative turn in the past decade.
Negative campaign commercials not only have become more common, but also are increasingly effective in presidential elections because they resonate with Americans' distrust of politicians and are simply easier to craft than positive ads, the strategists said.
"Most voters think that all politicians are sleazebags," said Carter aide Greg Schneiders. "To say, 'My opponent is a sleazebag,' is to hit a responsive chord. To say, 'I am not a sleazebag,' takes some convincing."
The constraints of 30-second ads, which Bailey argued should be limited to a single point, combined with the maxim that voters can be more easily persuaded to oppose one candidate than to vote for another, have encouraged the shift toward negative political advertising.
"One good point for somebody is not going to make him president," Bailey said. "One bad point against somebody is enough to rule him out."
Another contributing factor, in the eyes of Michael Deaver, the so-called "image guru" of the Ronald Reagan Administration, is the bland choices available to voters in many elections, causing the races to be determined primarily on the basis of "who you're going to vote against."
While the consultants' consensus was that the growing negativity of campaign ads lowers voter turnout by exacerbating Americans' disenchantment with politics, they acknowledged trying to capitalize on the tactical advantages afforded by that trend. By carefully targeting particularly caustic ads in certain regions, overall turnout there can be "driven down," dramatically influencing an election's outcome, they said.
Though political commercials are widely derided for their lack of substantive content, the campaign specialists argued that closer examination of some of the more notable ads from past presidential races reveals powerful, though often subtle, messages to voters.
Most voters use television ads to make character judgments about presidential candidates, rather than to carefully scrutinize their issue-by-issue stands or even weigh the nominees' philosophy against their own, the consultants and former campaign managers said. The most effective ads, they argued, are those that either positively reinforce voters' faith in candidates or raise doubts about their character and overall fitness for the presidency.
During the 1988 campaign, for example, a campaign ad for George Bush showed the by-now familiar, politically embarrassing videotape of Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis riding in a tank, wearing a helmet with the chin strap attached--looking, as NBC news commentator John Chancellor said earlier in the conference, "like the cover of Mad Magazine."