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How Republicans Built a Better Obamacare Ad

Democrats are worried that personal tales of misfortune will be tough to defend against in the 2014 midterms.

photo of Scott Bland
February 3, 2014

"Tell Kay Hagan ObamaCare Hurts North Carolina"

Wearing a blue blouse and clutching a coffee mug, Chapel Hill businesswoman Sheila Salter sits at the counter of a well-appointed North Carolina kitchen in a recent TV ad. What she says is the stuff of Democratic nightmares.

"I was shocked," she says of her cancelled health insurance policy. She blames embattled Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan for her woes. Hagan "told us if you liked your insurance plan and your doctors, you could keep them," Salter continues.


Salter's kitchen-counter story, broadcast into North Carolina living rooms by the conservative outside group Americans for Prosperity, is part of the latest barrage of anti-Obamacare ads. It's evidence that, after four years of looking, Republicans think they've finally found the perfect way to hit Democrats for supporting the law. And Democratic strategists worry that Republicans can replicate it across the country.

"For the last two elections voters have had to take our word for it that Obamacare would be a disaster," said GOP consultant Brad Todd. "They don't have to take our word for it anymore. They can listen to people like their neighbors tell their own stories."

Pessimistic predictions and sinister statistics have been staples of attack ads since President Obama signed the health care law in early 2010. But Republicans haven't had stories like Salter's to go with them.

Until now. And they come just in time for the 2014 elections.

Republicans should find someone like Salter in every 2014 congressional race and put her on TV, according to one GOP ad-maker. "It would be criminal stupidity not to find these folks and recruit them to this everywhere," said Republican media strategist Rick Wilson. He continued: "I would think you'll see David Jolly," the GOP's nominee for a special House election in a swing Florida district, "roll something like this out soon."

Many of those whose policies were cancelled will be able to get new health insurance coverage. But between the personal aspect of the stories and Democrats' insistent promises over the past few years that everyone would be able to keep their health care plans, the advertisements have the potential to strike a nerve in ways that Republican campaigns have not before.

The Republican stand-by on Obamacare in 2010 and 2012 was to attack it, and Democrats who support it, because it "cuts Medicare by $700 billion." (Democrats applied a similar attack to Republicans and their budgets.) But personal anecdotes are much more powerful political messaging tools than citations of data. The Democratic consulting firm Global Strategy Group recently asked poll respondents to rate the believability of several sets of statements, pitting one featuring anecdotes against one featuring statistics on the same subject. More people chose the anecdotal statement in all three tests.

That might be because the stories are less ambiguous. Obamacare has generated numerous reports about its impact, and both parties cherry-pick the most friendly statistics for their purposes. Notably, the Hagan campaign's fact-check of AFP's recent ad couldn't disprove anything that Salter said. Personalizing Obamacare can backfire—GOP Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers's State of the Union rebuttal featured a constituent story that's now getting picked apart by the media—but the technique has high potential.

Just ask Democrats. A personalized technique was a huge part of their anti-Mitt Romney playbook in 2012.

"It's just like when Priorities USA used that steelworker" and other personal stories in their ads, Wilson said.

That's a reference to the pro-Obama super PAC that aired a series of television spots savaging Romney's record during the last election. Many of them, including what might be the most memorable TV ad of an election that had more than ever, featured men and women speaking to the camera about how Romney's firm, Bain Capital, took over their businesses, shut them down, and laid off workers like them.

The Republican argument that Romney's business career ultimately created more wealth and jobs for others didn't stick nearly as well as Democrats' messaging about the GOP nominee. It's part of the reason exit poll respondents said that Obama was "more in touch with people like you" than Romney and that Romney's policies were more likely to favor the rich over the middle class.

Having watched those ads work in their favor in 2012, the potential onslaught of personalized GOP health care ads in 2014 has some Democrats worried.

"That's a really hard argument to try and beat back," said one Democratic strategist involved in congressional races. "Now we're arguing with real people who have a powerful voice. There's no question that the real stories of people who've lost health insurance are a problem for us."

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