With a movie star's help, the Democrats discover a wedge issue

Michael J. Fox isn't the only one making pro-stem-cell research ads for Democrats -- and the numbers show the ads might be working

Published November 1, 2006 12:44PM (EST)

Despite making a crowd of more than a thousand wait in a hot, packed auditorium for an hour, the biggest names in Iowa's Democratic Party got a healthy round of applause when they finally took the stage Monday afternoon for a rally at Drake University. Sen. Tom Harkin and gubernatorial hopeful Chet Culver, who seems poised to win on Election Day, waved to the crowd and sat down, and Rep. Leonard Boswell stepped to the lectern to address the assembled.

But a minute into his speech, Boswell had to stop talking. A murmur began to rise at the side of the stage and then a wall-shaking roar filled the Olmstead Center as the audience realized the rally's real attraction had entered the building. Only after actor Michael J. Fox had mounted the stage and hugged and shook hands with each candidate in turn was Boswell able to continue speaking.

Once best known as a television and movie star, Fox has within the past two weeks recaptured the nation's attention as the star of commercials and in-person appearances for Democratic candidates who favor stem cell research. More than a few people in the Drake University crowd were holding signs thanking him for his very public stance, but Fox has also been slammed for it, most notably by conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh. As Fox listened to the other speakers and waited his turn to speak, the symptoms of his Parkinson's disease, the same symptoms recently mocked on-air by Limbaugh, were apparent as he shifted uncomfortably in his seat, his legs racked by tremors. When he rose and began to speak, he took a jab at his chief critic, without ever mentioning his name.

"It was suggested that I not talk to anybody until my symptoms went away," Fox said. He brought his right hand to his chest. "They just want me to go away."

"We're not going anywhere," Fox said. "We're not going to go away until the diseases go away." The room erupted in another roar. After the speech, a woman clutching a photograph of Fox began to sob uncontrollably.

Early polls show that much of the nation may be similarly affected. Fox's first commercial, which boosts the Senate candidacy of Claire McCaskill in Missouri, began airing Oct. 21. A survey by HCD Research, a marketing firm that was one of the first to notice the impact of the Swift Boat ads on the 2004 presidential race, showed that after viewing the ad, those who considered themselves independents became 10 percent more likely to vote Democratic. Republicans, too, were profoundly affected by the ad: After seeing it, 10 percent of those who identified themselves as Republican reported that they would now vote for a Democratic or independent candidate. Even the Swift Boat ads, says Glenn Kessler, HCD's co-founder and managing partner, didn't have that type of effect. The Swift Boat ads did little to change the number of people supporting John Kerry, instead affecting the intensity of their support.

For the past six years, as the Bush administration has successfully trotted out one social wedge issue after another to turn out values voters and swing voters alike, the Democrats have been helpless bystanders. Democrats have long needed a wedge issue, says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, "[but] they haven't had a damn one." During this election cycle, however, with seats in even supposedly safe Republican districts in play, stem cell ads have been deployed by Democrats and their allies in many key House contests, as well as in several of the tight races that may determine the balance of power in the Senate. Sabato thinks they may have found the wedge issue they need. "That's good news for the Democrats."

Fox's ads may not even be the best pro-stem-cell research spots on the air. Evan Tracey, CEO of TNSMI/CMAG, a firm that specializes in the analysis of political advertising, bestows that honor on an ad produced by a 527 group called Majority Action Fund, which is staffed by former Democratic operatives. That ad features actors portraying a family in which each member discusses an ailment he or she will one day suffer. The son announces that he will be paralyzed in a car accident, the mother says she will develop Alzheimer's -- "I won't recognize my husband, or my kids" - and the daughter reveals that she will be diagnosed with diabetes. All then castigate their local Republican congressman for voting against stem cell research. At the ad's climax, they again make it personal:

"Who knows? Maybe I'm your mother. Maybe I'm your grandson. Maybe I'm your little girl. How do you know I'm not you?"

"There are real families that have potential for cures here," says Mark Longabaugh, the executive director of Majority Action, explaining the reasoning behind the ad. "This Republican Congress has sort of stuck its head in the sand on this issue. And I think it's an enormously powerful issue."

Tracey thinks that the ads work so well, and that stem cells are a perfect wedge issue, because it's hard for opponents to fight back. "It's easy to explain hope in 30 seconds," he says, noting that it's not nearly so easy on the other side. "It put Republicans at least in the position of being against hope ... It's got to be of some benefit in a midterm election, because probably the second-most-reliable voting bloc after seniors is parents, and this is an issue that appeals to both groups."

Similarly, Kessler believes the issue is useful for Democrats because it connects with so many people concerned about what stem cell research might be able to do for them personally. "I think maybe everyone can picture themselves as a Michael J. Fox," Kessler says. "I think that the emotions that people felt related to viewing a famous person who many people like ... they may have seen him as they would see a relative, who they would like to do anything they can to save."

In an interview after the Drake University rally, Harkin said the issue, and Michael J. Fox in particular, may well have saved him in his last reelection campaign. Harkin supported stem cell research, and his opponent raised the specter of cloning. "I was in a tough race in 2002, and I was getting hit with cloning and all that kind of stuff, and I was the first person [Fox] ever did an ad for," Harkin recalls. "He cut an ad for me and we ran it, and it just blew them away. You could just feel the earth move at the end of my campaign. That just ended it all.

"I think in close races," Harkin says, "in this state, in Missouri, in other states, this issue could be [the] deciding [factor] ... There are so many families out there with a child that has juvenile diabetes, and they're petrified that their child will live with this all their life ... It's high on their agenda when they go out to vote."

But Ramesh Ponnuru, an opponent of stem cell research and a senior editor at the conservative journal the National Review, is skeptical about stem cells as a game changer in 2006 or any other year. "This is an issue that has worried a lot of Republican strategists and given hope to a lot of Democratic strategists for several years now, but so far nobody can point to a candidate who's lost an election because of their opposition to embryo-destructive stem cell research."

The test of just how powerful the stem cell issue will be this year could come in the House districts where Majority Action has chosen to run its family ad. The ad is running against Republican Rep. Thelma Drake in Virginia's 2nd District, where a poll released by Mason-Dixon on Oct. 27 showed her race against Democratic challenger Phil Kellam in a statistical tie. The ad is also running against Indiana's Chris Chocola, an incumbent Republican facing a stiff challenge from Democrat Joe Donnelly, who, according to a mid-October poll by the South Bend Tribune, is leading Chocola by 5 points. Also hit are incumbents Don Sherwood (R-Pa.), who is trailing his challenger, and Jim Walsh (R-N.Y.), who is running neck-and-neck with his.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has also gotten in the act, running ads in seven more key districts in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, California, Washington, Ohio, Colorado and New Jersey. The ads have not run nationally, both because in a midterm election national ads are unnecessarily expensive when trying to affect local races and because many Republicans split with their party on the issue, voting against the president's veto of a bill that would have allowed for full federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

Fox, meanwhile, has appeared either in an ad or in person in four key Senate races -- those in Missouri, Ohio, Maryland and New Jersey -- and is tentatively scheduled to appear Nov. 2 in the hotly contested Senate race between George Allen and James Webb in Virginia.

To win the Senate, Democrats must take six seats from the Republicans. They already appear to have commanding leads in two, in Montana and Ohio, and seem poised for victory in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island as well. Maryland and New Jersey were already home to Democratic incumbents, so to win the Senate, Democrats must hold those two states and pick up victories in two of the three races in Missouri, Virginia and Tennessee, all of which remain too close to call.

Ponnuru picks Missouri as the best measure of the impact of stem cells. Voters there will be deciding both whether to choose pro-research Democrat McCaskill or incumbent Republican Sen. Jim Talent, and whether to add an amendment to the state constitution that guarantees scientists the right to conduct stem cell research within the state. Ponnuru calls the proposal "the cloning amendment." "If the cloning amendment passes," he says, "that is a real success in a red state, and if Jim Talent loses his reelection campaign in the Senate, he will likely lose by a narrow margin, and it will be plausible to say that the stem cell issue contributed to his loss. On the other hand, if the amendment fails, and if Talent wins, then I think that after three election cycles -- the failure to produce a scalp, especially in an election that has been as bad for conservatives as this one -- then I think you really need to start questioning the spin on this."

Thus far, the actual impact of the issue and the ads has been hard to measure -- as Sabato notes, "We don't have any [evidence] yet, but we'll have some Nov. 8." But in the most prominent race where the issue has come into play and the Fox ads have aired, the Missouri Senate contest, Democratic challenger McCaskill, down by a few points just weeks ago, now appears to have pulled even with Talent.

If the ads are as effective as Tracey and the HCD poll say they are, how can Republicans respond? Should they? HCD's Kessler believes they have to.

"I think that if you can find an appropriate response to something like that, it should be done," he states. "I think back to the Swift Boat ads. The Democrats never responded to the Swift Boat campaign, and many say that cost them the election. An appropriate response to that would maybe have saved Kerry."

And Republicans have tried to respond. In Missouri, where the Fox ad aired, opponents of stem cell research cut a spot featuring other celebrities, including St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Jeff Suppan, former St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner and actor Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in The Passion of the Christ. The ad, featuring Caviezel speaking one line from The Passion in Aramaic, a clear appeal to fundamentalist Christians, ran during baseball's World Series, which was heavily watched in Missouri because the St. Louis Cardinals were involved. In New York, Rep. Jim Walsh struck back against the Majority Action ad with a spot of his own, featuring his daughter defending his position. And in Maryland, Republican Michael Steele ran a spot featuring his half-sister, Monica Turner, the ex-wife of boxer Mike Tyson, who herself suffers from multiple sclerosis. Steele has reportedly also been engaging in "push polling; the Web site Talking Points Memo reported that some of its readers were receiving robotic calls informing them that Democrat Ben Cardin believes "medical research should be allowed on unborn babies."

Yet Tracey believes Republicans have little chance of winning on the issue. "Your hope is to wrestle this issue down to a tie, and hope that the swing voters don't ultimately decide that, Hey, this is the straw that broke the camel's back. This is what's going to make me vote for the Democrat in this race."

He says the problem is that on this issue, Democrats have successfully positioned Republicans as being on "the opposite side of hope," and that it's too hard to explain being on that side within the constraints of television advertising. "I don't think you are going to be able to explain in 30 seconds these sorts of moral and ethical dilemmas of embryonic stem cells vs. adult stem cells."

The only effective response Tracey has seen, he reports, was the Walsh commercial. "He did a couple things that are absolutely right," Tracey says. "He went after the credibility of the [Majority Action] spot by saying these are actors. He used his actual daughter... And then I think the second thing that they did very effectively in that ad is, he laid out a very strong case for what Republicans have done in the area, funding R&D. I think that's the best pushback to something like the embryonic stem cell issue ... What he did was, in essence, state his position, and then he pushed back using facts: basically, the amount of money that this Congress has voted for curing diseases."

Dan Gage, director of communications for Walsh's campaign, echoes Tracey as he concedes that deciding how to rebut the Majority Action spot was difficult. "We can't go back and explain the minutiae of the [stem cell] debate. You can't do that in 30 seconds." To counter a cookie-cutter national ad using actors, the Walsh campaign used a local. "We wanted to make sure we had a credible advocate, someone who knew the congressman well. You can have no better advocate than your own daughter."

Gage reports that after the spot featuring Maureen Walsh ran, the congressman's poll numbers improved. Both the Majority Action ads and the Walsh response ads targeted women; according to Gage, Republican and undecided women increased their support for Walsh. The problem for Walsh and every other Republican being hit by stem cell ads this fall, however, is that those women were coming back to Walsh. As Gage admits, and as HCD Research might've been able to predict, the initial barrage of pro-research, anti-Republican commercials had driven Walsh's numbers among both Republican and independent women down.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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2006 Elections Michael Steele Rush Limbaugh Tom Harkin