Slow and Steady Wins The (Presidential) Race

Most football games are not won with a Hail Mary pass into the end zone.
And most baseball games don’t end with a grand slam home run.

Both sports are, generally, ones of incremental progress — five yards here, ten yards there, or a single, a double, and maybe even a base-on-balls.

Political campaigns are the same. It’s rare that one event, one speech, one debate, one attack spot, decides an election.

Every candidate, however, imagines coming into possession of a killer charge that, once hurled at the opposition, will end his or her campaign. It’s a strategy that occasionally works, but is much dreamed about.

And perhaps some in the Obama campaign believe they can design a killer ad attacking Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital. But most likely they understand from watching the GOP primaries that Gingrich, Paul and Santorum never managed to develop a Bain attack that would take out the eventual GOP nominee.

The truth is that while a scandal (think Mark Foley and Anthony Wiener) or a disastrous debate (think Gerald Ford or Michael Dukakis) might be enough to destroy a candidacy, it’s far more difficult to find an example of a TV spot that did the same.

Perhaps the most likely prospect for a killer spot would be the 1964 “Daisy Girl” spot that Lyndon Johnson ran against Republican nominee Barry Goldwater.

On the night of September 7, 1964, Johnson’s campaign aired the spot for the first and only time as a paid ad on national TV. In the commercial, a tow-headed little girl counts as she plucks flower petals. Suddenly, a mission control countdown interrupts the tranquil scene, followed by apocalyptic images of a mushroom cloud and nuclear holocaust.

As the fiery cloud engulfed the screen, Lyndon Johnson’s voice intoned, “These are the stakes; to make a world in which all of God’s children can live — or go into the dark. We must either love each other or we must die.”

The Daisy Girl spot was followed by a series of Johnson spots throughout September that stoked fears that a President Goldwater would start a nuclear war. Campaign lore has it that those spots killed Goldwater’s campaign.

Johnson biographer Robert Dallek has written, for example, that the Johnson spots “destroyed any slight hope Goldwater might have had of overcoming Goldwater’s lead.” Another historian of the times flatly declared, “the mushroom cloud destroyed [Goldwater’s] candidacy.”

As I noted in my 2011 book on this spot, Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds: LBJ, Barry Goldwater and the Ad that Changed American Politics, the polling data suggest that Goldwater himself had already done most of the destruction with years of reckless talk about nuclear weapons.

See a chart of the polling data here: Gallup & Harris Polls 63-64

In fact, according to Gallup, after a month of “devastating” attacks by Johnson in September 1964, Goldwater’s poll numbers actually climbed by three percentage points, while Johnson’s dropped by four.

It seems that Johnson’s campaign spots merely served as a kiln that baked the radical cowboy image of Goldwater into something hard and durable. But the Daisy Girl spot, and the others Johnson ran that month, didn’t destroy Goldwater for one simple reason — he never really had a chance to win the election.

That’s not to say, however, that the 1964 election isn’t instructive. But, instead of looking to the LBJ-Goldwater race for ways to knock out Romney with one punch, the Obama people might consider looking at another more important aspect of that campaign.

Those who watch the “Daisy Girl” spot will note that Johnson never once mentioned Goldwater’s name, nor showed his image. He didn’t need to. Voters knew what — and who — the spot was about.

Goldwater acknowledged as much in his 1988 memoir. “There was no doubt as to the meaning [of the Daisy Girl spot]. Barry Goldwater would blow up the world if he became president of the United States.”

Indeed, Goldwater had worked hard over the years to portray himself as a reckless cowboy. And voters got the message.

In fact, the Johnson campaign was so successful not because Johnson gave them that message. The voters, in fact, already had the message about Goldwater. Johnson only had to put that message to use in a way that instilled fear or dread in the hearts of those voters.

That was the genius of “Daisy Girl” and the Johnson spots — taking the facts that voters already possessed and putting them to effective use to produce an emotional response.

And Obama may be in the process of doing the same with Romney.

Do voters already know about Romney’s time at Bain Capital? Many of them do. But if not, the polls suggest that they do know that Romney is a fabulously wealthy business tycoon who seems unfamiliar with the daily lives of average Americans.

That’s something the Obama campaign might use to assemble a winning game plan — not one that depends on grand slams or Hail Marys, but rather on the incremental gains that usually win football and baseball games. And presidential elections.

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