Memo To: Sen. John Kerry [D MA]
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Money on the Margin
The news media is chock full of reports on how you are going to barnstorm the country trying to raise tens of millions of dollars so you can catch up with President Bush and the millions and millions he has in the bank to buy TV commercials to stomp you into the ground. I’ll let you in on a little secret. You don’t have to raise all the money your advisors are telling you to raise. You can be competitive with a fraction of the President’s war chest, but you have to learn how to spend it on the margin. Your advisors won’t tell you this because they are all on the payroll, and in one way or another they will benefit from having you raise tons of money to buy advertising. Insiders who have been around the track also know that when it comes to presidential campaigns, the electorate spends far more time doing its own research than it does on lesser races for lesser offices. You could win on free media alone, if you really are the man the voters are looking for and know how to let them see that.
You can already see that right out of the box, President Bush has spent a bundle running a television ad showing him at Ground Zero of 9-11. More people have seen the ad on the news shows because of the controversy surrounding it, and most political observers agree that he lost ground for its airing. If he spends the $160 million he has banked on TV spots as counter-productive, he will waste every nickel. The most recent example is the $40 million that Howard Dean squandered in Iowa and New Hampshire, with plenty of evidence that voters who felt positive about him before the spots ran felt less positive after they were barraged by them. I’m told you had one spot aimed at Dean’s promise to roll back the Bush tax cuts in their entirety that did in fact informed the voters about something they had not quite understood previously. They hit home.
The best example of errant political spending that comes to mind was a TV spot for the Dole campaign in 1996, which showed a clip of President Clinton making a speech in Texas where he apologized for having raised taxes in 1993. The numbskulls in the Dole campaign thought the spot would hurt Clinton around the nation and spent a small fortune airing it. The news shows picked it up and showed it for free. I was supporting the Dole/Kemp ticket at the time and tried my best to get the Dole people to see the voters were in effect seeing a Clinton apology they had not known about, and that he was gaining, not losing support with every showing. Dole was financing Clinton’s re-election.
It is nice to have a bankroll for paid political ads, but you better know they are doing more good than harm, or better than nothing at all. When Jack Kemp ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 1992, he raised $13 million and squandered most of it on television spots designed by a Madison Avenue outfit famous for its Pepsi Cola ads. The Kemp spots showed him throwing a football to little kids on a gorgeous autumn afternoon. I told Jack even before the spots were cut that in all likelihood the Pepsi outfit would do feel-good spots instead of information spots and that he should save a few hundred thousand dollars out of his fund for simple talking-head spots and newspaper ads that would run on the last weekend Sunday papers of the primary states. Politicos hate newspaper ads because they do not get kick-backs for placing them. They work, but only if they say something that clicks with last-minute voters.
Really the best way to gain support in a presidential campaign is by daily press release, which gets free media if the content of the release is “on the margin,” hitting a theme that may not have worked the day before or the day after, but which hits the electorate’s sweet spot just at the right time. This is going to be hard for you to do because your tendency will be to rely on political operatives who have been in presidential campaigns before and who thus think they know what the voters want.
Ronald Reagan made good use of television spots in winning the GOP primaries in 1980, but that was only after his campaign manager, John Sears, saw the “feel-good” spots produced for him by the experts and ordered them shelved. Instead, Sears called Jeff Bell and asked him if he could produce 12 spots for $1,000 each. These were the talking-head spots where Reagan promised to replicate the Kennedy tax cuts, to get the country moving again, but “leaving nobody behind,” (I line that I wrote for Jeff Bell.) Everywhere the spots were shown, Reagan defeated all opponents. Where they did not run in the late stages of the campaign, after Reagan had the nomination sewn up and did not need to waste funds on TV spots, i.e., in Michigan and Pennsylvania, George Bush won the primaries. In the general election it was a different story, with Reagan saying what came to his mind from one day to the next instead of having operatives put words in his mouth. The electorate could see he not only was genuine, but that he also expressed opinions that in many ways hit common chords.
Remember Ross Perot’s campaign in 1992? He was leading in all the national polls by wide margins before he spent a dime on television commercials. It was only after he hired political experts to counsel him that his campaign was driven into the ground. Perot dropped out just to get rid of the team he’d hired. When he came back a month later with a fresh start, he could never get the momentum back that he had lost, but he still surprised everyone with a respectable third-place finish.
The polls now show up winning over Mr. Bush by a serious margin, 52% to 43%, with the rest going to Ralph Nader and others. You got this far, I think, by deciding late in your campaign to be yourself instead of having operatives tell you what to think and what to say. You will do best, I think, if you stick to that idea. The electorate will see through you if they see you trying to be something you are not, in order to satisfy the focus groups, etc., and they will mark you down accordingly. Yesterday, for example, President Bush devoted his day to blasting you for introducing legislation in 1994 to reduce spending on the US intelligence agencies by $1.5 billion over five years. If I were you, I would take this issue head on, and promise that if you are elected you will review the entire intelligence budget and throw out all the CIA and DIA funds earmarked for contractors as political payoffs. That’s why you introduced the legislation in the first place. It’s an even better idea now. Heck, back in '94 I think the late Senator Pat Moynihan suggested the abolition of the CIA, using the $30 billion or so its chews up every year for something useful.
PS: This is free advice. I also warn that I might again vote for Mr. Bush in November, or maybe Ralph Nader. Or I might stay at home. It all depends.