A tale of two campaign spots

What do candidates' ads tell us about their campaign strategies?

Published May 9, 2007 6:45PM (EDT)

Two presidential candidates, one Republican and one Democrat, have begun running very different styles of campaign advertisements on national cable. A close look at both tells us a lot about the problems the candidates face and the differences between the political parties.

Democrat John Edwards, dogged by the perception that he is a self-obsessed elite (see: Haircut, $400), has chosen to sideline himself within his own ad. We get a spot called "We the People," which features a racial rainbow of everyday Americans calling on Democrats in Congress to reject Bush's veto of the Iraq spending bill. The ad climaxes when the regular people declare: "Stopping a president who can do no wrong takes people with courage to do what's right." Then Edwards appears on-screen with his federally mandated disclosure. "I'm John Edwards and I approve this message."

Edwards is trying to tell us that he would rather spend his money for a cause, the people's cause, than to promote himself or get another haircut. But of course, he ends up promoting himself anyway. His sudden, and surprising, appearance on-screen suggests that John Edwards, a former senator with no say in Congress, is the one willing to "do what's right." The spot is also a testament to American democracy. The people are the stars. They are taking action. They are making a difference. Democratic voters love this stuff.

Republicans, by contrast, are far less egalitarian by nature. They want a strong leader to take on the challenges ahead. Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, wants to be that person. For his spots, the latest of which came out today, Romney is center stage, the uncontested big shot with an authoritative speaking style. He offers mostly generic presidential rhetoric, and mixed metaphors, about his plans for the nation. "This isn't the time for us to shrink...It's a time for us to stand in strength ... If we lock our arms together, we can forge the political will ... Now is the time..." Etc. Etc. In the background, an electric guitar plays, calling to mind the opening riffs of U2's 1987 hit "Where the Streets Have No Name."

Unlike Edwards, Romney is not worried about what people think of him. He is worried that people don't think about him. As it stands, Romney is probably less well known than just about anybody left on "American Idol." In a national poll by Quinnipiac University last week, 65 percent of Americans had not heard enough about Romney to form an opinion. Romney's advisors point to this as the current cause for his low poll numbers. "At this point in the cycle, national polls are entirely a reflection of name identification, not voters' views of the candidates," wrote Alex Gage, a senior strategist for Romney, in a February memo.

Romney also needs to appear tough and strong, since he is competing against the New York bruiser Rudy Giuliani and the war hero John McCain. This accounts for Romney's repetition of the word "strength" in the ad, and almost everywhere he goes on the campaign trail.

By Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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