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Democratic Strategists, Take Note: It’s Time to Think Big

For the first time in a dozen years, the political environment looks right for generic party advertising. But tight finances and the difficulty in getting party committees to agree on a single message could dampen interest in a strategy that worked well in 1980 and 1982 but poorly ever since. [IMGCAP(1)]

If that last paragraph seems vaguely familiar, you have an extraordinary memory. It led off a column that appeared in this space on July 15, 1993. Then, as now, I was convinced that a national advertising campaign and a national message would benefit the “out” party in the next midterm election.

Republicans didn’t take my advice (so what else is new?), but they were able to nationalize the 1994 elections by making them a referendum on then-President Bill Clinton and his agenda, riding a tsunami to control of Congress.

I generally dismiss early TV political ads, finding them wasteful and ineffective. Normally, only consultants, not their clients, benefit from early ads. But this isn’t a typical election cycle.

With President Bush’s poll numbers down, Congressional job approval in the tank, Republican ethics problems making headlines and conservatives less than enthusiastic about the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, Democrats need to do everything they can to create a “national election.”

A Democratic nationwide television advertising campaign can help make every race a referendum on the president, the Republican Congress and the status quo. It’s worked before.

The most effective national party advertising campaign ran in 1980, when the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee pooled their resources to fund an advertising campaign that cost $8 million — an extraordinary amount of money two decades ago.

The spots began airing in late January 1980, more than nine months before the general election. In one ad, an actor who looked like Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) ran out of gas. The spot’s tag line was: “Vote Republican. For a Change.”

That fall, Republicans picked up 34 House seats and 12 Senate seats, giving them control of the Senate for the first time in almost 40 years and yanking power away from a Democratic Party that had controlled the House, Senate and presidency for the past four years.

Two years later, with the country in recession, Democrats ran their own effective generic advertising effort — a TV ad campaign proclaiming, “It’s not fair. It’s Republican.” The party picked up 26 House seats.

So far, House Democratic leaders apparently have been spending most of their time trying to create a party message for the cycle. They are concerned about offering a positive agenda to counter Republican complaints that Democrats do nothing but criticize and stand for nothing.

That’s not what I’m talking about. In fact, there is no reason for Democrats to rush out an agenda of their own this fall.

Many people assume that the “Contract with America” contributed in some way to the GOP’s election success in 1994, but it’s a conclusion disputed by some Republican operatives actively involved in the cycle. Notably, that agenda wasn’t unveiled until Sept. 27, just five weeks before the election.

In fact, the phrase “Contract with America” didn’t appear in this newspaper until an article in late July, and then it was presented simply as an initiative on which the House Republican Conference was working. Until that point, Republicans focused exclusively on the Democrats’ failings.

Democrats don’t need to offer a positive agenda until next year. For the near future, they can do just fine pointing to the Republicans’ problems.

But a couple of waves of early TV advertising — possibly using the “together, we can do better” tag that has tested so well in focus groups — could help position the Democrats as the party of change and reform.

Some Democrats not only agree with me, they believe that the ads will come.

“The issue isn’t whether we should run ads, but when,” one well-placed Democrat told me recently. “How we get the dollars and what the ads are going to say will be decided later. But there is no disagreement [among Democratic decision-makers] about whether to do the ads.”

Other Democrats, though, are more cautious about the inevitability of a generic Democratic advertising campaign.

As it was back in 1993, money is again an issue now that soft money is not available to the parties.

Some insiders flatly predict that the Democratic National Committee will lack the resources to fund an ad, and even Democrats who support national generic advertising admit that the party would have to raise money specially for such an advertising effort. I would counter that a successful advertising effort could create a flood of new money for the party’s candidates and committees if Democratic donors smell blood in the water.

Other Democrats wonder whether party insiders who would have a role in any decision on a national TV campaign — the chairs of the two campaign committees, the party’s House and Senate leaders and an endless list of consultants — could possibly agree on what to say and when to say it.

My 1993 column ended by suggesting that if Clinton remained weak, a Republican generic advertising campaign might “force Democrats to defend more seats” and “help turn a small wave into a tsunami.” That’s how I feel now, except that the beneficiaries this cycle would be Democrats, not the GOP.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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