When voters turn on their TV sets come primary time, here’s one political ad they won’t see:
When voters turn on their TV sets come primary time, here’s one
political ad they won’t see:
’I’m Bill Bradley, running for president. I started here in a small
Missouri town, was a Rhodes Scholar at Princeton and won an NBA
championship for the New York Knicks. In the Senate I fought for, wrote
and passed tax reform and cuts targeted for middle class, working
families. I fought for healthcare and education. I fought to protect
Social Security. Now, I’m waging war against special interests and their
big money campaign contributions. They’ve blocked HMO reform and stopped
the Patient’s Bill of Rights from becoming law. That’s just plain wrong.
One more thing: you elect me president, there’ll never be a special
prosecutor in the White House. Count on it.’
A different kind of campaign
Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf rattles off that idea in
a recent interview with PRWeek. ’Campaigns,’ insists Sheinkopf, ’are not
about educating the public, but reaching for their souls.’
Bill Bradley appeared to touch a responsive chord with the electorate
last summer when he was conducting his listening tours. But losses in
Iowa and New Hampshire indicate that the bright promise of Bradley’s
candidacy has faded while Vice President Al Gore, once written off by
many politicians supposedly in the know, has resurrected himself. Even a
Bradley victory in New York or, less likely, California this week would
make it unlikely that the VP loses the nomination.
Well, the VP all along had substantial advantages that, properly
applied, would make him the favorite in good economic times. After all,
no sitting VP since the aged Alben Barkley in 1952 has been denied the
nomination of his party in the post-World War II era. And the two
candidates are more alike than different on most issues. As Economic
Policy Institute visiting fellow David Kusnet notes, Gore and Bradley
offer ’virtually philosophical mirror images’ making it harder to
develop deep, meaningful distinctions between one another.
Yet, even before Bradley has officially withdrawn from the race, PR and
political pundits delivered diagnoses (obituaries perhaps) on a campaign
Democratic pollster Brad Bannon notes that besides the two major party
primaries, another one was being held between reformers Bradley and
McCain. ’There was quite an appetite for change, but room for only one
change candidate. McCain won because he was a lot more accessible to
That goes right to Kusnet’s belief that there was a telling difference
in the styles of Bradley and Gore. There has been a meritocratic element
to Bradley’s life: best student, best basketball player and considered
to be among the brightest senators. Gore may also have an Ivy League
education and come from an even more prominent family, but his father,
Senator Albert Lee Gore, was considered to have a populist streak.
When Gallup asked in mid-February which candidate voters would most like
to have dinner with, Gore, Bush and McCain each were picked by over 20%
of voters. Bradley drew just 12%. But the difference in style has not
just been about how the understated, professorial Bradley projects in
presentations but how he failed to respond to the changing political
environment and a retooled Gore campaign.
The summer and early fall saw Gore’s campaign drawing more coverage from
the opinion-making news media for its internal management problems and
the VP’s own inconsistent style, which at worst was overly formal and
stiff. But Des Moines Register chief political correspondent Dave Yepsen
notes that the VP became much ’more focused and punchier’ in talks, and
no longer ignored Bradley.
Credit goes to Gore himself and the campaign’s new team led by former
BSMG exec and trusted Gore associate Carter Eskew. Kusnet thinks Gore’s
reliance on experienced political consultants ’who know how to deal with
give and take’ has been telling. Bradley has some experienced political
hands, including the estimable Anita Dunn, but he reportedly shrugged
off some of their most important advice.
How Bradley responded to Gore’s revved-up effort speaks volumes.
Gore had said in the fall that he was the candidate willing to ’stay and
fight,’ citing Bradley’s decision not to seek reelection to the Senate.
Bradley partisans may view that charge to be unfair, but their candidate
needed to show more fire in response.
Porter Novelli SVP and former Gore aide Lorraine Voles recalls the
moment in an Iowa debate when the VP challenged Bradley’s Senate record
on flood relief, an important issue in Iowa. The former senator’s
response: ’You can talk about the past, but I want to talk about the
future.’ According to Voles, ’It made Bradley seem dismissive of
agriculture in a state where it is very important.’
When Gore challenged the plan in their first joint appearance, the
challenger’s response essentially came down to: ’We each have our own
experts. I dispute the cost figure that Al has used.’
Democratic pollster Bannon and political consultant Steve Murphy both
noted Bradley’s lack of fire in responding directly to Gore’s criticism
of his health insurance program. ’Bradley put an enormous emphasis on
that plan to provide health insurance for working families. If that plan
is important, then you’ve got to be prepared to fight aggressively when
it’s being challenged,’ says Murphy.
Days later, Bradley made a vigorous defense of the plan, charging that
Gore had abandoned the fight for healthcare the administration waged in
the mid-1990s. Sheinkopf argues that even when Bradley became more
aggressive on that issue, his responses failed to be couched in ways
that would shift the fundamental terms of the debate, a skill that the
best politicians know how to employ. The Bradley campaign’s timing may
have been off too.
Bradley’s ideas turn stale
The Project for Excellence in Journalism, in its study of coverage by
the opinion-making news media before the New Hampshire primary, found
that Bradley failed to obtain strong coverage for his policy ideas. The
’big ideas’ that he hoped would add juice to his campaign failed to draw
strong attention as Iowa and New Hampshire approached, perhaps, as the
Project suggested, because he first introduced them in the fall. The
study suggests ’how hard it can be to sustain press coverage of one’s
ideas for very long.’
Sheinkopf’s ad suggests different issues and themes that Bradley might
have emphasized more, possibly with greater success. Bradley’s campaign
got off to a fast start, and his 46% showing in New Hampshire may have
been treated with greater enthusiasm by the news media had not original
expectations been built so high.
The senator’s desire had been to wage a ’different’ campaign that
consisted of ’just going out and saying who you are and what you
believe.’ But voters wanted to see that he would fight for those beliefs
heart and soul. Minimalism when it comes to character and motivation may
work in literature, but not, as Gore knows, when it comes to winning
votes for president.