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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Voters Know, but the Politicians Just Don't Understand

June 11, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Hello. I'm Jay Bulworth. You know, we stand at the doorstep of a new millennium. Our obligation is to reduce our bloated federal government but at the same time restore its creative power, to reinvigorate our society . . .

--Campaign commercial in the movie "Bulworth."

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In the flick, California Sen. Jay Billington Bulworth sits alone watching his hackneyed, poll-driven TV spot, getting sicker by the scene. The politician--played by writer-director Warren Beatty--becomes so depressed he tries to have himself assassinated, turns into a rapper and even levels with voters.

In real life, we may never know how failed gubernatorial candidate Al Checchi reacts when he sits alone watching his hackneyed, poll-driven TV spots, or even if he does.

The airline tycoon, I've been told privately, is angry and agrees with many that his ads didn't portray the real Al Checchi. But he's also in relatively good spirits, satisfied he gave it his all and relieved he now has his life back. Bottom line for him: It's a downer to spend $40 million of your own money in self-promotion and wind up with a public image that's 2 to 1 negative. (Times exit poll.)

Former political pollster Pat Caddell is a friend of both Beatty and Checchi. He gave each free advice in their recent ventures. Beatty, we must presume, took more of it than Checchi.

"They made a monster out of him," Caddell says of Checchi's ads. "This was not the Al Checchi I know."

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Caddell, 48, now lives in L.A. and works in the film industry. But once he was a world-class political player, polling for the likes of George McGovern, Jimmy Carter and Gary Hart. Then he got into a California Senate campaign and--a little like "Bulworth," but without the extreme consequences--became so disgusted with himself that he dropped out. He stayed for the vote and quit politics then and there.

At the time, Caddell was polling for Sen. Alan Cranston's 1986 reelection race. The final straw, Caddell says, was a strategy he helped devise to suppress the election day turnout by running so many negative TV ads that occasional voters would be repulsed and stay home. Frequent voters were siding with the old pol Cranston, but occasional voters were moving toward his fresh-faced opponent, Republican Rep. Ed Zschau.

The scheme apparently worked. The voter turnout was the lowest for a general election in 44 years and Cranston won by only a 1.4% margin.

"Our only strategy was to make the race so horrific people wouldn't vote," Caddell recalls. "We all agreed in a long conference call to throw everything at Zschau, all the trash.

"After the call, I'm sitting in my Washington office, lights off in the dark, looking at the Potomac River, saying to myself, 'God, this is not why I got into politics. I got in because of Bobby Kennedy and George McGovern, the war and idealism. I didn't make my reputation this way.' And I couldn't do it anymore. I got out."

Adds Caddell, who could double for Robert De Niro's spin doctor character in "Wag the Dog": "I helped invent negative [TV] ads. I go to church every Sunday and confess my sins. Now that I've become a virgin again, I look back on it all with great disdain."

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Caddell believes "something historic happened" in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. Citing polls, he notes there was a voter backlash against both Checchi's free spending and his negative ads. "I think the voters have changed--whether or not consultants get the message, I don't know."

One consultant who tends to agree is Bill Carrick, a crafter of TV ads and, most recently, strategist for Rep. Jane Harman, the third-place finisher and first victim of Checchi's attacks.

"Voters are harder to sell every election," Carrick says. "They've built up a strong immune system to political bull, both positive and negative. They're hip to the whole thing. They can smell it."

Every consultant I talked to said Checchi's ads--negative or positive--failed because they weren't believable. (Checchi's ad creator, Robert Shrum, wasn't available.) Nobody really believed Checchi "marched" with Martin Luther King, or Harman was an ally of Speaker Newt Gingrich, or Lt. Gov. Gray Davis was a scoundrel.

"I do honestly think in my gut," says Davis' campaign manager, Garry South, "that there has been a fairly significant change in the public's receptivity to slash and burn campaigning. . . . And if you're perceived as going negative without provocation, there's a price to pay."

But we'll keep seeing negative ads because they can work. They sure did against Harman. The new trick will be to suppress backfire.

The politicians--while they don't need to rap--also should take a point from Bulworth: Level more with voters, even in TV ads.

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